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Physics by Design

ROBOLAB Activities for the NXT and RCX

 Revised and Expanded

Second Edition

By

Barbara Bratzel

with a

Foreword by Chris Rogers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes on the Second Edition

 Much has changed since the first edition of Physics by Design was published.  There is a new programmable brick, the NXT, and a new version of ROBOLAB, ROBOLAB 2.9.3, which runs both the NXT and the RCX. This second edition updates and revises the activities in the first edition to take advantage of this new hardware and software. In addition, it includes new activities for both the NXT and the RCX.

I am now teaching Physics by Design with the NXT and ROBOLAB 2.9.3. The transition from the RCX to the NXT was remarkably smooth. My students enjoyed using the NXT as much as they had the RCX. In fact, in some ways the NXT was a significant improvement. The sturdiness and flexibility of NXT beam-and-peg building allowed my students to build stronger, more creative designs—once they got the hang of using the new system.  

Every year, my students build “meet and greet” robots after they learn ROBOLAB programming. The robot must respond to a wave or a handshake with some sort of enthusiastic display—lights, motion, and so on. To my delight, the NXT robots were the best ever. In the past, most of the RCX robots had waved back and flashed lights. The NXT robots picked up their feet and danced, rocked back and forth, even high-fived the hand-shaker.  

Besides the sturdier building system, the NXT gives you three new sensors to use, the sound sensor, the ultrasonic sensor, and the built-in rotation sensor. On the other hand, the RCX uses a less intimidating brick-based building system and allows you to communicate between bricks using ROBOLAB.  

So, there are now two programmable LEGO bricks, each with its own strengths, which allow you to combine science, mathematics, engineering, and robotics in the classroom. Whether you are using the NXT or the RCX, I hope that you find this book useful.

   Preface to the First Edition

Every year, the students in Physics by Design, an eighth-grade science class at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge Massachusetts, design their own pan balances using LEGO, string, and a set of metric masses. The design is left to them. The only requirement is that the finished balance must be accurate to within 0.5 grams. The students design and build, test and modify, until they are satisfied with their balances. When they decide they are ready, they put their balances to the final test—determining the mass of four unknown objects. 

These students are doing engineering while at the same time applying what they have learned about center of gravity, stability, and torque. Using the concepts in an actual design project reinforces them more effectively than completing any number of problem sets. In addition, the students have fun building their balances and feel a considerable sense of accomplishment when they successfully complete the challenge.

I started Physics by Design several years ago as an approach to teach students engineering as well as science. Traditionally, engineering is rarely taught below the college level. However, it has much to offer younger students. First of all, it is engaging. Students have a chance to design and build their own projects and have the satisfaction of actually making something work. Second, engineering projects are a powerful way to teach and reinforce science and math concepts. Third, introducing engineering at a younger age encourages students, particularly female students, to consider it as a career. At the moment, the majority of female engineering students report that they entered engineering because they have a parent who is an engineer. Seeing what engineers do while they are still in middle school widens the horizons of all of the other girls.

Physics by Design was inspired by the work of the Center for Engineering Educational Outreach (CEEO) at Tufts University in Medford , Massachusetts . The CEEO is dedicated to bringing engineering into the K-12 classroom. They have had great success in integrating engineering into mathematics and science classes, as well as reading, writing, social studies, and art classes, in schools across the country. I have been lucky enough to work with Professor Chris Rogers and program manager Merredith Portsmore at the Center for a number of years. 

Several years ago, I was asked to do a series of physics demonstrations for a summer teachers’ workshop that the CEEO was giving. The workshop was centered on using LEGO and engineering to teach science concepts. When I did my traditional demonstrations, they paled in comparison to the LEGO engineering projects. I had never seen teachers have half as much fun at a workshop before. Watching them all sitting on the floor, clearly having a ball designing amusement park rides out of LEGO, I had to join them. I sat down and attempted to build a merry-go–round of my own and I was hooked. The seeds of a new course were planted that day—I wanted to find a way of letting my students share in the excitement we teachers experienced as we designed and built.

The course that eventually resulted, Physics by Design, is a project-based course that teaches classical mechanics through engineering. It covers motion, forces, fluids, stability, work, and energy. The topics are approached from an engineering perspective, with building and designing reinforcing the conceptual physics material and vice versa. Most of the designing and building is done using LEGO bricks, including the LEGO RCX and NXT, bricks that contain programmable microcomputers. They are programmed using ROBOLAB, an icon-based programming language. All of the students in the course learn ROBOLAB; by the end of the year, they are adept at programming.

  Physics by Design is now in its seventh year and has become an integral part of Shady Hill’s science program. It continues to be popular; most years, more students sign up to take it than either of the other two courses offered.

          The course has been received enthusiastically by the students. Here are a few of their comments:

“I think the course was both interesting and challenging. For me, the LEGOs made it interesting and the physics made it challenging.”

“The course was really fun, and I learned a great deal. This was one of my favorite courses this year, because of its creative leeway.”

“The other kids think that we just play with LEGOs, but this is really hard!”

Physics by Design is the most rewarding course I have ever taught. I love seeing the pride that the students feel when they are successful in solving problems and the confidence they gain through the year as they tackle harder design challenges. I love the delight that students feel when they discover a talent for engineering or programming that they never suspected they had. I love that the course lets me be a mentor and a coach, rather than a lecturer and a director.

I hope that this book will help other teachers incorporate engineering into their science courses.

 

Foreword by Chris Rogers

When I first saw the prototype of what was to become the RCX, the heart of the LEGO Mindstorms product, it seemed to have an infinite number of possibilities in the classroom. It could take measurements for you; it could control motors, animate constructions, and even talk to another RCX. It seemed to me to be an ideal teaching tool to bring engineering into the pre-college classroom. What was missing is the binder of 50 different experiments for the teacher to use. When the RCX did come out, teachers embraced it, using it to infuse robotics and construction into the curriculum. They came up with many different ways of using it, from after school programs for pre-teens to kindergarten robotics, although most of the published activities were about robotics and vehicles. What is missing is using the RCX as a tool to teach other subjects and that is where this book comes in. It is the physics chapter of that binder. With this book, I hope that teachers will move beyond the robotic animals, cars, and houses and really look at teaching other content through engineering. 

Barbara was an integral part of the original ROBOLAB design team as an expert “end user.” She tested out different ideas on her middle school students until finally in 1998 she decided to offer a new class, “Physics by Design.” This elective class would be dedicated to letting the students design and build their own experiments using the LEGO bricks as the toolset. The idea was to teach the students how to question, experiment, and answer. In the first year the class was completely oversold and students had to participate in a lottery to get in. Interestingly, the course continues to be filled to capacity despite having a second section, and also has had a strong female contingent, not commonly seen in middle school physics classrooms. Although most of this popularity is due to Barbara’s teaching ability, I think the draw of designing and building (engineering) attracts students because they can see the application, they can use their hands, and actively participate in their learning.

In the era of standardized testing, I think we are losing sight of the main goal of education in my mind—to teach students how to learn on their own. We need to teach students how to be curious and ask a question, how to frame the question, how to research the question, how to validate their answer to the question, and how to communicate that answer to others. This has little to do with the content and a lot to do with the approach. Courses like Barbara’s are getting harder to execute because they take longer to cover the topics than does the comparable lecture/memorization course. Standardized tests cannot test learning how to work on a team effectively, learning how to research, and learning how to plan and execute an experiment, yet all of these are, in my opinion, far more important than memorizing scientific fact. With this book, I hope that more teachers will be able to move from memorization and lecturer to investigation and mentor. There is nothing more rewarding than having a group of middle school students come back to the classroom during recess so that they can further investigate the complexities of torque or energy transfer (a common occurrence in Barbara’s class). That is when you know things are going right. Students (of all ages) should be excited to go to school and learn—Barbara has accomplished this and does an excellent job of presenting these ideas in this book. I hope this is the first of many such books from outstanding teachers around the country that emphasize design over memorization. I hope you enjoy taking this into the classroom as much as I have.

 

Contents

Part One: Getting Started      

  1. About Physics by Design……………………………………...    1-1

  2. Classroom Management………………………………………    1-1

  3. Materials Management………………………………………..     1-3

  4. Additional Resources………………………………………….     1-3

 Part Two: Introductory Activities

  1. Introduction……………………………………………………..    2-1

  2. Build a Box NXT………………………………………………..    2-2

  3. Curvy Car RCX…………………………………………………    2-4

  4. Random or Not…………………………………………………     2-7

  5. Simple Two-Motor NXT Car…………………………………..    2-15

  6. Simple Two-Motor RCX Car………………………………….     2-19

  7. Simple One-Motor RCX Car…………………………………..    2-21

 Part Three: Pilot Activities

1. Introduction……………………………………………….……..     3-1

2.  Pilot’s License………………………………………………….     3-2

3.  Pilot 1 At a Glance……………………………………………..    3-3

4.  Pilot 1 Activity…………………………………………………..    3-4

5.  Pilot 2 At a Glance……………………………………………..    3-8

6.  Pilot 2 Activity…………………………………………………...   3-9

7.  Pilot 3 At a Glance…………………………………………..…    3-14

8.  Pilot 3 Activity…………………………………………………..    3-15

9.  Pilot 4 At a Glance……………………………………………..    3-19

10. Pilot 4 Activity…………………………………………………..    3-20

11. Copy Car……………………………………………………..…    3-26

12. Figure Eight…………………………………………………….     3-31

13. Programming Practice and Quiz…………………………..…     3-34

 Part Four: Inventor Activities

  1. Introduction……………………………………………………..     4-1

  2. Get with the Program………………………………………….    4-3

  3. Inventor At a Glance………………………………………..…     4-4

  4. Inventor Tools At a Glance………………………………....…    4-5

  5. Inventor 1 Functions Palette At a Glance……………………    4-6

  6. Light Switch: Inventor 1………………………………..………    4-7

  7. Inventor 2 Functions Palette At a Glance……………………    4-10

  8. Click Beep Buzz: Inventor 2………………………………..…     4-11

  9. Blink Blink: Inventor 2……………………………………….…     4-13

  10. Inventor 3 Functions Palette At a Glance……………………    4-15

  11. Unsynchronized Motors: Inventor 3………………………..…    4-16

  12. Inventor 4 Functions Palette At a Glance……………………    4-18

  13. Sound Loop : Inventor 4………………………….…………….    4-19

  14. Push-Button Motor: Inventor 4………………………………..    4-21

  15. Clean Sweep……………………………………………………    4-23

  16. Inventor Programming and Quiz…………………………...…    4-26

  17. New NXT Sensors……………………………………………..     4-31

  18. Three Ways to Stop: NXT Rotation Sensor………………....    4-32  

  19. Clap On: NXT Sound Sensor…………………………….……    4-35  

  20. Burglar Alarm: NXT Ultrasonic Sensor……………………….    4-38

  21. You’ve Got Mail…………………………………………………   4-41

  22. Simon Says: RCX Mail…………………………………………    4-42

  23. Echo: RCX Mail…………………………………………………    4-45

  24. Telephone: RCX Mail…………………………………………..    4-47

  25. Count 1,2,3: RCX Mail………………………………………….   4-50

 Part Five: Projects

  1. Introduction………………………………………………………   5-1

  2. Music Box………………………………………..………………   5-2

  3. Haunted House…………………………………………………     5-7

  4. Meet and Greet…………………………………………………   5-11

  5. Bug in a Box…………………………………………………….    5-14

  6. Applause Meter NXT………………..………………………….   5-21

  7. Mini Golf…………………………………………………………    5-24

  8. Robotic Zoo……………………………………………………..    5-28

  9. Chain Reaction Machine………………………………………     5-32

  10. EGGcellent Contraption……………………………………….    5-34

 Part Six: Investigator Activities

  1. Introduction……………………………………………………..    6-1

  2. Investigator At a Glance Navigation Bar…………………….     6-2

  3. Investigator At a Glance Programming Page……………….     6-3

  4. Investigator At a Glance Upload Page………………………     6-4

  5. Investigator At a Glance View Page…………………………     6-5

  6. Light and Dark Scavenger Hunt………………………………     6-6

  7. I’m Thinking of a Number……………………………………..     6-11

  8. Voting Machine…………………………………………………    6-16

  9. Do You Have a Sister?........................................................ 6-20

  10. Cave Explorer…………………………………………………..    6-26

  11. Reaction Time………………………………………………….     6-32

 Part Seven: Physics Activities

1.     Introduction……………………………………………………..    7-1

2.     Getting Up to Speed…………………………………………...    7-2

3.     Stop for Pedestrians……………………………………………   7-8

4.     Parking Space………………………………………………….    7-11

5.     Crossing the Lines……………………………………………..    7-14

6.     Spinning your Wheels…………………………………………..   7-20

7.     Speed Comparison…………………………………………….    7-28

8.     Action-Reaction Car……………………………………………    7-33

9.     How Many Bricks in a Newton ?………………………..……..    7-38

10. Perfect Pitcher NXT…………………………………………….   7-41

11. Gear Training……………………………………………………   7-45

12. Worm Gears…………………………………………………….   7-48

13. Spinning Colors…………………………………………………    7-51

14. Simple LEGO Protractor……………………………………….   7-55

15. Building a Better Protractor……………………………………    7-60

16. At a Snail’s Pace……………………………………………….    7-65

17. Pulley Systems…………………………………………………    7-68

18. Ramp Up………………………………………………………..    7-74

19. Peak Performance……………………………………………..    7-78

20. Tightrope Walker……………………………………………….    7-82

21. LEGO Balance………………………………………………….    7-85

22. Building Pressure………………………………………………     7-89

23. Floating LEGO Bricks………………………………………….    7-94

24. Cartesian Diver…………………………………………………    7- 98

25. Stir It Up…………………………………………………………    7-101

26. It’s a Breeze…………………………………………………….    7-106

27. Cool It Fast……………………………………………………..    7-111

28. Musical Instrument…………………………………………….     7-114

29. Ultrasonic Pendulum NXT……………………………………..     7-121

30. Reach your Potential…………………………………………..    7-126

31. Control Car……………………………………………………...    7-134

32. Logging the Control Car……………………………………….    7-141

 

Appendix A: Alignment with the National Science Standards

Appendix B: Activities Listed by Topic

Appendix C: Equipment Used for Each Activity

 

 

Physics by Design

 

Second Edition

 

ROBOLAB Activities for the NXT and RCX

 

By

Barbara Bratzel

 

Pricing

Title

ISBN #

Price

Physics by Design

ROBOLAB Activities for the NXT and RCX

Copyright 2007,  360 Pages

0-9762413-8-2

978-0-9762413-8-6

$36.00

 

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