A private Episcopal school for primary through high school students in Houston, Texas

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Students Power Up Robotics to Solve Real-World Problems
St. Francis Episcopal School

Video phones. Robotic vacuum cleaners. Drones. 3-D printers. Until someone decided these items would make life easier, they just didn't exist. Who among us hasn't wished we could do the same thing? That is, take a real-world problem, come up with an idea to solve it, then design, build, and program a robot to execute a solution. When given the opportunity, St. Francis Middle School students in Steve Johnson's robotics class rose to the challenge.

Students had to first pinpoint a real world problem that they felt could be addressed with robotics technology, identify users of their proposed solution, and describe the components and behaviors of their robotic solution. Some students involved their parents and selected problems from their work and home lives, such as the challenges facing those in the health care, oil and gas, and medical industries.

"In choosing their own problem, students had agency and a commitment to helping others," said Mr. Johnson. "Their sense of mission helped give them grit when they needed it."

Proposed solutions included:

  • A robot that travels through water supply lines fixing leaks and contaminants;
  • A robot that drills and maintains oil well drilling equipment;
  • A smart cane which enables the vision impaired to sense obstacles around them and communicates to the user through Bluetooth;
  • A robot that detects water and drills for it;
  • A nanobot that searches for cancerous tumors in the body;
  • A flying drone robot that can be sent into disasters to rescue people;
  • A military scouting robot that performs surveillance and reconnaissance; and
  • A home health care robot that notifies the user when medications are ready and helps them organize and take them.

Once their proposals were approved, students moved on to design and construct their robots, collaborating with each other to create the robotic components and behaviors necessary to solve the problems. They built prototypes of their solutions with Lego motors, sensors, controllers, and bricks. Then, using Lego Mindstorms software, they programmed their robots to act autonomously in the real world to solve the intended problem—repeatedly performing tests to improve their designs until they worked properly.

"Creating solutions for real world problems required students to engage in deep and sustained inquiry. They had to show resilience and creativity until their robots worked," said Mr. Johnson.

Lastly, they filmed the robots in action and created promotional videos to share with parents and intended users—bringing to life their creativity, critical-thinking skills, and through their innovative solutions to real-world problems, their commitment to being people for others.