Robots on the Move

Robotics and the new science of biomimetics appear in the media and provide lessons in scientific observation, technology and engineering design, and solutions to problems.
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Whether in the works of science fiction or the imagination of engineers, robots have fascinated humans. They appear in films, media coverage and classrooms. Their form and movements are influenced by those of animals.


The Washington Post’s news, Health & Science section, and science blogs cover recent innovations, experiments and applications of robotics. As students read these articles they will be more aware of the convergence of electronics, engineering, computer science, applied technology, mathematics, oceanography and ethics. They will research products that imitate nature and study the etymology of biomimetics.


The KidsPost reprints in Robots and Kids are all STEM-related, presenting a 14-year-old’s flybot, an underwater robot created by girls and a cheetah-bot built by a team at MIT. Students interact with the material through discussion questions and activities. They build a sea glider using simple components such as a water bottle, syringe and weights. Study a whale’s flippers, apply principles of biomimicry and test their designs.


Robots and biomimicry may solve many problems. They also present moral and ethical dilemmas. After reading Washington Post articles, students are encouraged to discuss and debate how many human tasks and interactions these manmade devices will assume.


January 2015

Observe and Design
Resource Graphic 

Develop Vocabulary
English, Reading, Science, Technology 
In the Know vocabulary consists of terms used in The Washington Post and KidsPost articles and science blogs about robots. Teachers are encouraged to review these terms and definitions with students before reading articles about robotics and biomimicry.

This month's World Study focuses on two roots: bio and mimos.


Fly Like a Fruit Fly
Biology, Computer Science, Mathematics, Science, Technology
Students may be introduced to biomimicry and the importance of observation by reading “Fruit flies inspire teen’s winning robot.” This KidsPost article focuses on a winning science fair project in which 14-year-old Mihir Garimella creates a flybot. Discussion questions are provided in “Flybot's Winning Ways."

Older students might be asked to read the project description, research and design found at Flybot: Mimicking Fruit Fly Response Patterns for Threat Evasion. Discussion would include:
• What do they learn about the scientist and his inspiration?
• Discuss his methodology.
• What do the photographs, video and charts add to the project presentation?

Run Like a Cheetah
Biology, Computer Science, Mathematics, Science, Technology
Another example of biomimetics is found in the KidsPost article, “For disaster situations, a cheetah robot that runs to the rescue” and in The Post’s Speaking of Science blog, “It leaps. It jumps. New algorithm could help ‘cheetah’ robot outrun humans.” Give both to students to read and view the MIT News video

Discussion would include:
• In what ways is a cheetah a standout in the animal kingdom?
• Sangbae Kim built the cheetah-bot at MIT’s Biomimetics Lab. Which components of the robot did he and his team develop?
• The cheetah was carefully observed. Engineers programmed the metal legs to imitate what movement?
• Why might the Defense Department be funding Kim’s work in biomimetics?
• In what ways did reading two sources and seeing the video help to better understand the project?

Additional questions are found on the student worksheet, "It Leaps. It Runs. Cheetah-bot!"

Around and Above the World with Robots
Resource Graphic 

Out-Bo Bo
Computer Science, Science, Technology
Juliet Eilperin concludes “Here, Bo-Bot! At White House, the holiday displays go digital” with a view toward next December and the future:

“The current set of White House tinkerers has grand ambitions. The Bo-bot and Sunny-bot teams made their code open-source to encourage science students to experiment and ‘out-Bo Bo.’ Next year, they want to build robots with animated joints that can move their paws and jump.

“Maryonovich [a graphic designer at the White House Office of Digital Strategy] predicts that the White House visitor experience will be radically different in a matter of years. ‘The White House of the future will have holograms of past presidents, and you will vote using your brain,’ she quipped. “That’s all down the line.”’

Read and discuss “Here, Bo-Bot! At White House, the holiday displays go digital.” Dog-bot pets, White House 3-D ornaments, and President’s Park tree lights “patterns coded online by girls across the country.” What next?

Ask students to imagine what they would do if they could add to next year’s holiday display in Washington, D.C. Sketch and write a narrative of their plan to out-Bo Bo.


Interview HERB
Career Education, Computer Science, Reading, Science, Technology
Professor of robotics and father of HERB, Siddhartha Scrinivasa answers questions about his life and work. Before reading the Health & Science article, “HERB: A robot that can unload a dishwasher and (sometimes) take apart an Oreo,” teachers could introduce HERB in the video that shows his attempts to take apart Oreo cookies.

Give students the interview to read. “Meet HERB and ADA” may be used to guide reading and discussion of the interview.

After reading and discussing the interview, show students the Post TV video of HERB acting.


Consider Bio + Mime
Biology, Computer Science, English, Science
The Greek root bio-, meaning one’s life or way of living, has come to be interchangeable with zoe-, meaning animal life, organic life. These roots are fund in two areas of science — biology and zoology. In modern science two new fields of study were introduced — bionics, biomimetics or biomimicry.

Give students “Word Study: A Mime for Life” to study these roots and their use in science.  Starting with the examples of Leonardo da Vinci and the Wright Brothers, we look at the modern areas of study.

Read About Robots

Debate Robots in Hospitals and Ebola Regions
Debate, Health, Science, Technology 
List tasks that students would want robots to perform. How many are daily chores? Which of the tasks listed would take place at work? In a hotel, in the office or in space? Do any of them involve assisting medical staffs or those who are ill? Discuss how these would be beneficial to humans.

Teachers might also introduce students to Isaac Asimov and his four Law of Robotics. Writer Dominic Basulto presents his ideas around these rules.

Read "Don't worry, our robot overlords will protect us from Ebola. Right?" Discussion would include:
• Who are the "overlords" referred to in the headline?
• In what tasks might robots assist in fighting Ebola?
• Basulto states "moral and philosophical questions arise" the more robots are used. What are the questions and concerns?
• List Asimov's Laws of Robotics. Under each tell how they apply to using robots with Ebola patients and in an infected area.
• Would students advocate use of robots in hospitals? With Ebola patients? 


Meet the Challenges of Disasters
Engineering, Science, Technology 
Whether in Japan where earthquake and tsunami hit the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, in Nebraska where schools and homes have collapsed after tornados or in small towns around the globe where people are facing disasters, roboticists are working to build robots in many shapes to help. Read "Creating an R2-D2 to tackle disaster."

Discuss the different designs that are being tested to create a robot that can function in disaster areas. Students could work in groups to consider the problems that robots face and the design features they would use to meet those challenges.


Take the Plunge
Mathematics, Oceanography, Physics, Technology
As preparation for a lesson in neutral buoyancy, give students “Take the Plunge” to read about AUVs, ROVs and Archimedes Principle. An assignment follows in which students are asked to construct a diving bell. Teachers are provided a list of materials and procedure to follow. In addition, a Washington Post informational graphic, “Scarlet Knight — First Glider to Cross the Atlantic,” is provided to give a close-up of this 2009 feat.


Design a Glider
Mathematics, Oceanography, Physics, Technology
Biomimicry is introduced in “Biomimicry Provides Models.” Students are given two examples from nature — the Venus flower basket deep sea sponge and the whale. Read and discuss this background information. If there is time for students to design a glider, give them “Sea Gliders.” Note the photographs and read the Teacher Notes.


Accept a Challenge
Engineering, Mathematics, Physics, Science, Technology
Although human engineers use their in-depth knowledge of science and math to solve problems, solutions to many problems have been solved by nature’s engineers — bacteria, animals and plants. Teachers who wish to encourage their students to take the biomimicry design challenge could give students “Be Inspired — Design for the Future” and “Design Challenge.” The content of these handouts relates directly to the Biomimicry Institute challenge.

In addition, the two-page “Part 1: Design Challenge Notes” can be used to record observations as students work through the design process. When they have finished Part 1, students should return to “Design Challenge” for Part 2.

Resource Graphic 
In The Know 

Anthropomimetic   Mimicking the human form
Asimov, Isaac Author who coined the term “robotics” in his 1942 short story “Runaround”
Biomimetics Building something that imitates nature
Biomimicry Study of nature’s design and processes to solve human problems in a sustainable manner. See Biomimetics.
Burn-in  Robot testing procedure in which all components of the robot are operated continuously for an extended period; done to test movement and movement programming of the robot to avoid malfunction after deployment
Component A part or element of the whole; part of a mechanical or electrical complex 
Dynamics The study of motion, the forces that cause the motion, and the forces due to motion. The dynamics of a robotic arm are very complicated as they result from the kinematical behavior of all masses within the arm’s structure. 
Exoskeleton  Robot mechanism with rotational joints which can be attached to the human extremity
Joint Contact of two surfaces that either slide (translate) or rotate
Kinematics  Relationship between the motion of the endpoint of a robot and the motion of the joints  
Robot A machine that may resemble a human being or animal and performs various complex acts on command; mechanical device designed to execute one or more tasks repeatedly          
Robot language Computer programming language with commands enabling interaction between robot system and human operator. It is based on either robot movements or robot tasks.
Robotic hand Robot gripper with more than three fingers, each having two or three segments. Robot hands are capable of dexterous tasks resembling those of the human hand.
Robotics Science of designing, building and applying robots
Robotic surgery

The application of robotic systems in planning and execution of endoscopic (inspection of the interior of the body) and minimally invasive surgical procedures. Surgical robotic systems make use of medical imaging and provide high accuracy and repeatability of operation.

Sensor Mechanical device sensitive to light, temperature, radiation level that transmits a signal to a measuring or control instrument

SOURCES: Motoman Robotics Glossary of Robotics Terms, Springer Science Robot Vocabulary,

District of Columbia Public Schools Academic Content Standards 

Physics. All objects experience a buoyant force when immersed in a fluid.  As a basis for understanding this concept,
1. Explain that the buoyant force on an object in a fluid is an upward force equal to the weight of the fluid it has displaced.
2. Recognize that a change in the pressure at any point in a fluid is accompanied by an equal change at all other points. (P.4 Mechanics of Fluids)


English. Construct arguments that
• present a cogent thesis;
• structure ideas in a sustained and logical fashion;
• use a range of strategies to elaborate and persuade, such as descriptions, anecdotes, case studies, analogies, and illustrations;
• clarify and defend positions with precise and relevant evidence, including facts, expert opinions, quotations, and/or expressions of commonly accepted beliefs and logical reasoning;
• anticipate and address readers' concerns and counterclaims with evidence;
• demonstrate understanding of purpose and audience; and
• provide effective introductory and concluding paragraphs that guide and inform the reader's understanding of key ideas and evidence. (Expository Writing, 12.W-E.3)


Academic Content Standards may be found at

Maryland Academic Content Standards 

Science. Design, analyze, or carry out simple investigations and formulate appropriate conclusions based on data obtained or provided. 
a. Explain that scientists differ greatly in what pheonomena they study and how they go about their work.
b. Develop the ability to clarify questions and direct them toward objects and phenomena that can be described, explained, or predicted by scientific investigations.
c. Explain and provide examples that all hypotehses are valuable, even if they turn out not to be true, if they lead to truthful investigations.
d. Locate information in reference books, back issues of newspapers, magazines and compact disks, and computer databases. (Skills and Processes 1.0. Constructing Knowledge. Topic A) 


Science. Develop explanations that explicitly link data from investigations conducted, selected readings and when appropriate, constributions from historical discoveries.
c. Gve examples of how scientific knowledge is subject to modification as new information challenges prevailing theories and as a new theory leads to looking at old observations in a new way.
g. Rocognize that important contributions to the advancement of science, mathematics, and technology have been made by different kinds of people, in different cultures, at different times. (1.0. Communicating Scientific Information. Topic C) 

English. Analyze important ideas and messages in informational texts 
a. Analyze the author’s/text’s purpose and intended audience
b. Analyze the author’s argument, viewpoint, or perspective
c. State and support main ideas and messages
g. Synthesize ideas from texts
h. Explain the implications of the text or how someone might use the text
i. Connect the text to prior knowledge or experience (Comprehension of Informational Text, Indicator 4)


Academic content standards may be found at

Virginia Academic Content Standards 

Physical Science.  The student will investigate and understand scientific principles and technological applications of work, force, and motion. Key concepts include
a)  speed, velocity, and acceleration;
b)  Newton’s laws of motion;
c)  work, force, mechanical advantage, efficiency, and power; and
d)  applications (simple machines, compound machines, powered vehicles, rockets, and 
restraining devices). (P.S. 10)


Physics. The student will investigate and understand properties of fluids. Key concepts include
a)  density and pressure;
b)  variation of pressure with depth;
c)  Archimedes’ principle of buoyancy;
d)  Pascal’s principle;
e)  fluids in motion; and
f)  Bernoulli’s principle. (PH.7) 

English. The student will develop a variety of writing to persuade, interpret, analyze, and evaluate with an emphasis on exposition and analysis.
a)  Generate, gather, plan, and organize ideas for writing to address a specific audience and purpose.
b)  Synthesize information to support the thesis.
c)  Elaborate ideas clearly through word choice and vivid description.
d)  Write clear and varied sentences, clarifying ideas with precise and relevant evidence.
e)  Organize ideas into a logical sequence using transitions.
f)  Revise writing for clarity of content, accuracy, and depth of information. (Writing, 10.6) 


Academic content standards may be found at

Common Core Standards 

Science & Techincal Subjects. Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; summarize complex concepts, processes, or information presented in a text by paraphrasing them in simpler but still accurate terms. (Key Ideas and Details. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.11-12.2)

Science & Techincal Subjects. Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., quantitative data, video, multimedia) in order to address a question or solve a problem. (Integration of Knowledge and Ideas. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.11-12.7)


Common Core standards are found at

Nation Science Education Standards

Science and Technology. As a result of activitivities, all students should develop
• Abilities of technological design,
• Understanding about science and technology,
• Abilities to distinguish between natural objects and objects made by humans. (Content Standard E)

National Science Education Standards are found at