Most people think of robots in humanlike terms — communicating and doing things like people would. But this specific subset of robots is actually not very common. A robot can be defined as a mechanical device that is capable of performing a variety of tasks on command or according to instructions programmed in advance. Engineers design robots to perform complex tasks more easily and with greater accuracy. Some everyday examples of robots include:
- automatic car washes
- vending machines
- automatic doors
- robotic arms used in manufacturing
- remote control cars and trucks
- automatic teller machines (ATMs)
In this lesson, students learn about the kinds of things that robots do, the excitement that goes with the design and testing, and what inspires ideas for different robots.
- Understand what makes something a robot
- Identify several different robots and the tasks that they do
- Understand that engineers design robots to do specific tasks
Grade Levels: 3-5
- Two class periods
- LEGO® Robots QuickTime Video
- Engineering for the Red Planet QuickTime Video
- Anatomy of a Rover Flash Interactive
- Kismet QuickTime Video
- RoboSnail QuickTime Video
- Robofly QuickTime Video
- Design Inspired by Nature Flash Image
Use these resources to create a simple assessment or video-based assignment with the Lesson Builder tool on PBS LearningMedia.
- science/technology notebooks
- drawing materials (pencils, crayons, etc.)
Before the Lesson
If possible, arrange computer access for all students to work individually or in pairs.
Part I: Determining Current Class Understanding of Robots
1. Have students do the first three steps in their science/technology notebooks and write the date at the top of the page. This will allow them to return in Part III to their original ideas about robots and see how their ideas have changed (and what changed them).
- Write the word robot on the board and ask students how they would describe a robot. Have students record the class comments in their science/technology notebooks.
- Have students draw a picture of a robot in their notebook. Leave this very open-ended: The image can be of a real robot or an imaginary one.
- Have students list the task(s) that the robot they drew is capable of performing.
- Ask for volunteers to say what robot means to them. Have students share their drawings with the person next to them or among members of a small group. Ask: What did your ideas about robots have in common? Were there differences? What were they? Listen for students' ideas about why engineers design and build robots.
Part II: Providing Depth to Knowledge About Robots
2. Introduce the definition of a robot: "A mechanical device that is capable of performing a variety of tasks on command or according to instructions programmed in advance." Compare how their ideas and drawings fit with this definition.
3. Show the LEGO® Robots QuickTime Video followed by the Engineering for the Red Planet QuickTime Video. After viewing the videos, start a class discussion about why engineers design robots, and brainstorm some of the more routine tasks that are done by robots. Make sure to highlight some of the reasons for using robots — for example, they're good for performing boring, repetitive tasks and can go where it is not practical or safe for humans to venture. In short, robots are developed for practical purposes, including efficiency, safety, and convenience.
4. Have students explore a Mars rover in detail using the Anatomy of a Rover Flash Interactive. As they examine the rover, they should observe the different types of tasks it is capable of performing. These observations can be added to their science/technology notebooks.
Part III: Student Investigation/Research
5. Assign students the task of identifying and observing robots around them, noting the specific functions that they are designed to do. These robots should be ones the students see in their everyday lives, but the exercise can also be extended to include ones they have read about or seen in movies.
6. Have students share their results. Then reintroduce the class description of a robot that they recorded in their science/technology notebooks. Has their definition broadened?
7. Now discuss where engineers get their ideas for different kinds of robots. For example, engineers will research how other people have solved problems similar to the one that they want their design to address. Expanding on someone else's ideas is often how advancements in technology are made. Sometimes ideas come from nature. Show the RoboSnail QuickTime Video and the Robofly QuickTime Video, discussing the different approaches engineers take in designing robots to perform certain functions. You can expand your discussion to include the concept of biomimicry by also showing the Design Inspired by Nature Flash Image collection.
8. Show the Kismet QuickTime Video and discuss how the idea for this robot was to model how humans interact with one another.
9. Wrap up the lesson with a discussion about what a robot is. Students should write in their science/technology notebooks how their ideas have changed and what influenced the change.
- Have students start a new entry in their science/technology notebooks titled "My Robot Invention." Tell them to write a description of what their robot can do and what important need this addresses. (Note: This robot can be different from the one they drew earlier in the lesson.)
- Included in an engineer's design criteria is a list of what the device can do. Ask students what other design features are important for their robot - for example, size, shape, weight, type of material it is made of, the forces it must be able to withstand, how much it costs to make or run, etc. Have them list these criteria in their notebooks.
- Next, have students draw at least one picture of what their robot invention might look like.
- Have students present their robot invention ideas to the class or in small groups. Ask them to include in their presentation what the robot is designed to do, the design criteria, whether they think the design could actually be made given today's technologies and available resources, and a picture of the robot.
Check for Understanding
Have students discuss the following:
- What is a robot? Does it have to look like a human?
- Why do engineers design and build robots?
- Where do the ideas for how robots work come from?
- Can you think of a situation in which a robot would be necessary or at least helpful?
- What specific characteristics would designers need to include in such a robot?