Robots: Best Educational Platform Ever


How robots make a great platform for teaching science, engineering and technology.

Teachers of engineering, technology, science and math are always looking for ways to get across the fundamentals to students in an interesting way.  Theory and math is boring without some context or practical application.  But what is that?  I have come to the conclusion that when teaching any aspect of engineering or science, you can’t beat a robot for an all-round way to teach many different but interrelated concepts.

Back in the early 1980s I helped conceive and my team designed and built one of the first educational robots at Heathkit.  It was called HERO, short for Heath Educational Robot.  It turned out to be a huge undertaking, especially the mechanical arm we all felt should be a component.  The project was a challenge because it involved lots of electronics as well as mechanics.  But overall it turned out to be a huge success.  It was a fun kit to build and there were many things to be learned from it.

Think about what is in one of these robots.  A power system with battery, charger, regulators and DC-DC converters in some cases.  Then there is the propulsion system with its motors, drivers, gears or belts, and servos.  Also present were a number of sensors for light, voice, range (ultrasonic radar) and position.  And don’t forget the arm with its complicated mechanics and controllers.  Then at the heart of it all was an embedded controller, back then a version of the early Motorola 6800 family.  The software and programming was machine code and assembler so programming was taught as well.  Just think of the examples that can be used in teaching all phases of electronics or science.

The robot kits available today are similar, but mostly without the arm.  They offer a teaching platform that can extend from basic circuit fundamentals and mechanical principles through microcontrollers and programming.  Wireless is also a part of many robot platforms today as well.  Almost a full set of lab activities for several courses.  It fulfills an instructor’s need for a good way to demonstrate principles and their application.  But best of all, the students love it.  It excites them, interests them and gives them something to grasp while learning the theory and concepts behind it all.

You can purchase a number of robot kits from vendors who advertise in Make and Servo magazines. Even toy maker Lego has a line of robots.  Yet today, many schools challenge students to design and build their own robots.  This approach not only teaches the fundamentals but brings out the creativity in the students as they attempt to apply innovation to their own design.

Robots are great for universities, community colleges and technical schools of all sorts.  But they have also found their way into the high schools and middle schools as a way to interest kids in science, math and engineering.  One of the organizations that help with such programs is FIRST, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.  It was established in 1989 as a means to inspire an appreciation of science and technology in young people.  FIRST designs innovative programs to build self-confidence, knowledge and life skills while motivating young people to pursue opportunities in science, technology and engineering.  FIRST offers college scholarships and hosts a wide range of robotics competitions for different grade levels such as 9-12, 7-12, 4-8 and even K-3.

This week, National Instruments (NI) announced that they were extending their partnership with FIRST through 2019.  This partnership centers around the creation of a next-generation embedded robotics control platform code-named Athena.  Athena is a super-rugged, reconfigurable controller that when paired with NI’s LabVIEW software makes it possible for FIRST teams to design real systems faster than ever.  Students will use Athena in forthcoming  seasons of the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC).  Through a donation from NI, FIRST will provide these next-generation robotics systems to participating teams starting in 2015.  Students in the FIRST program will actually use the same hardware and software platform that professional engineers now use to create applications in virtually every industry.

If you ever get involved with teaching, full time or part time or as a mentor, think of the robot as a way to improve the education process as there is nothing better than a robot to attract attention, focus interest and illustrate the core fundamentals that all students need to learn.  They also make a great hobby in case you are interested.

Discuss this Blog Entry 5

on May 1, 2013

Lou, keep up these types of blogs/articles. As a designer of robots including education I was really knocked back when the local technical high school instructor told me he was droping the robotic work we had instituded because, wait for it, "it did not teach anything in engineering or critical thinking". Yes that got my attention. Since that happened all robotic equipment has been moved to the dumpster, class also went from 12 second year students to 3, but there is nothing wrong there.
Also do not forget Robot Magazine.

Newsletter Signup

Please or Register to post comments.

What's Communiqué?

Blogs on topics such as wired and wireless networking.


Lou Frenzel

Lou Frenzel is the Communications Technology Editor for Electronic Design Magazine where he writes articles, columns, blogs, technology reports, and online material on the wireless, communications...
Commentaries and Blogs
Guest Blogs
Nov 11, 2014

How to Outsource Your Project to Failure 4

This article will address failure to carefully vet a potential manufacturing or “turnkey” partner and/or failure to transfer sufficient information and requirements to such a partner, a very common problem I have seen again and again with my clients over the years, and have been the shoulder cried upon by several relatives and clients in the past....More
Nov 11, 2014

Transition from the Academe to the Industry Unraveled 1

There have been many arguments here and there about how short-comings of universities and colleges yield engineers with skill sets that do not cater to the demands of the industry. There have been many arguments here and there about an imminent shortage of engineers lacking knowledge in the sciences. There have been many arguments here and there about how the experience and know-how of engineers in the industry may vanish due to the fact that they can’t be passed on because the academic curriculum deviates from it....More
Nov 11, 2014

Small Beginnings 5

About 10 years ago I received a phone call from an acquaintance. He had found a new opportunity selling some sort of investments and he wanted to share it with me in case I was interested. Ken had done fairly well for many years as a contract software developer primarily in the financial services sector. His specialty was writing RPG code. (RPG is often referred to as a write only language.) But he was seeing the handwriting on the wall as the industry moved on to other methods, and saw himself becoming a fossil....More

Sponsored Introduction Continue on to (or wait seconds) ×