Learning basic programming and engineering with LEGO Robotics

Sahbi Benzid

Sahbi is a Deputy Year Leader and KS4 ICT Leader at Stanborough School.

Website: www.stanborough.herts.sch.uk Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Four years ago, Stanborough School started its LEGO Robotics Club. Our goal was to introduce pupils to the principles of robotics and computing, and to give them an enthusiasm for engineering.

The club offers an initial six-week course in which pupils learn to design, build and program standard robots from instructions provided with the LEGO Mindstorms kit. They then move on to build and program machines of their own design.

To build a robot, pupils first construct a basic flat four-wheeled platform, following the instructions in a user guide. This acts as a chassis for the NXT brick - the mind of the robot. Next, pupils are given access to a large range of parts - including sensors for sound, touch and colour - which they attach to their robot to enable it to perform desired functions, such as stopping when it has reached a wall or firing a ball. When adding these components to robots of their own design, pupils realise the importance of careful planning: they need to ensure the motors and wiring can be connected to the NXT.

Having fitted their robot together, the pupils program its behaviour on a computer, using the LEGO Mindstorms software. They tell it how far to move and how to respond to various kinds of sensory input. This is a great way to introduce children to the logical structures of computer programming, such as if statements and while loops. It also demonstrates to them the importance of another key aspect of computing: testing!

When their program is finished, the pupils upload it to their robot (via its USB port or using Bluetooth). Then, all that’s left to do is put the robot in position, set it running, and watch it go. This is the most exciting and rewarding part of the process for the pupils, mirroring the anticipation of a successfully functioning piece of software. Of course, things don’t always go to plan, but debugging (another essential aspect of software development) is generally approached with enthusiasm: pupils are eager to discover what went wrong with their robot and fix it.

Stanborough School has become a leader in the field of LEGO robotics in the local area. We run classes for local primary schools and a summer school for gifted and talented pupils. We recently entered the FIRST LEGO League’s National LEGO Robotics Tournament, having built a strong reputation at the regional finals, in which we won various awards.

Since the club began, the school has invested in additional equipment, including more Mindstorm kits, our own laptop, a digital camera, video camera and secure cupboard. Our ambition is to encourage older club members to become mentors to our cohorts of new pupils, and for teams of robot-building pupils to include positions such as lead programmer, junior programmer and robot engineer. As well as giving pupils something to aspire to, this would introduce them to the teamwork and roles involved in real-life software development.

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