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¨  My 6 year old wants to build a robot. Where do we start?
¨  Can robotics increase critical thinking skills in high school students?
¨  Hexapod robot and nitonol
¨  What exactly does a robotics engineer do?
¨  Will Wendy Wooten be teaching a robotics class this summer?
¨  Robotics Teacher Training Courses
¨  What are robots?
  Information about the Mars Exploration Rover Robotics Education Program
  Advice in pursuing robotics
  What does a person in "Robotics and Automated Systems" do?
  What is the best aluminum alloy for BattleBots IQ bots?
¨  Safety concerns for young children of robotics kits with soldering component

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I would like to build a robot with my little boy who is 6.  Please help me, I don't know where to start.  I would like some materials and some understanding of programming.  Can I find materials and software that are not too expensive?

ANSWER from Michelle Mock on 10 April 2006:
At first I didn't know what kind of information to give you because most robotics kits run into the hundreds of dollars.  For approximately $300 the VEX robotics kit from Radio Shack is good.  Lego has Mindstorms.

I was at Costco yesterday and found something that is much more suitable for you to start out with!  There are a series of books/kits from Silver Dolphin publishers.  I purchased the Robotic Bat and Robotic Hornet for $9.49 each at Costco.  The kit contains a book which gives some background on robotics but most importantly, analyzes the animal as a robotic design.  You then build a simple robot.  It is for ages 8 and up (but with supervision totally appropriate for a six year old).  These robots are VERY simple (just a few steps snapping things together).  The most important thing in this case are the books and the thinking about the design.  He could also use materials like styrofoam and pipecleaners to fashion "prototype" robots.  Once he has created the design with simple materials, things like the Radio Shack kit could help you design real working robots.  These inexpensive kits and books will give you an idea if this is something your child enjoys.  If he does... then you can start looking at more expensive kits.  I encourage you to have him send his questions about robotics to us, here at Imagiverse.  What he learns from his thinking and wondering, will open the doors to further exploration of robotics.

If you can't find the Silver Dolphin books at Costco or a bookstore near you, see: http://www.silverdolphinbooks.com/catalog/details.asp?ISBN=1592234550

I hope this helps! Good luck and have fun!

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Can robotics increase critical thinking skills in high school students?  How do you assess critical thinking?

ANSWER from Michelle Mock on 28 March 2006:
Of course robotics can increase critical thinking skills!  Whenever you design and build something, you learn to think on your feet and figure out different ways to do things to make things work.  Critical thinking is not a passive skill.  You can have robotics in the classroom and let someone tell you each step of the process... you don't really learn as much that way.

How do you assess critical thinking?  I assume you are asking how individual teachers might assess a student.  This can vary.  Typically robotics will generate its own set of problems for students to figure out and solve.  Observing students as they work and listening to their thought process as they talk their way through a problem, gives great insight into their critical thinking skills.

Often, teachers require that students put these thoughts in a journal or answer a question in an essay form.  This provides one method of assessing a student's critical thinking skills but it is probably not the best way.  Problem solving is very dynamic. You try things... test to see if they work... if they don't (which happens often), you try something else.  Having to list all this in a journal can be very tedious and take away from the problem solving.

One way to get around this problem is to assign people jobs on their teams and let one person write the journal for the team.  Team members rotate through different jobs so everyone gets the chance to do all the different jobs.  This technique is one I like.  Observation is a good learning experience.  Writing is also something necessary in any career.  The journalist for the team can observe and log the activities during problem solving and allow the teacher more insight into the group's activities.

The thing I like best about robotics is how much fun it is to learn.  Making "mistakes" and trying new things is a big part of robotics and a great learning experience.  It is an amazing feeling to finally get something to work the way you want.

I hope this helps!

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Hey I'm making a hexapod robot using nitinol for movement.  I've got 50 um HT flexinol wire, and I put them on each joint on both sides of it, so it works kinda like how real muscles work, contracting in opposites.  I know it's not the most efficient process but, this way allows for better stability than a rigid system.  I'm trying to get it to move super fast, thus the thin nitinol, but with great stability (cockroaches).

I can't get my nitinol to contract, even with just a simple circuit, I have 1 double A battery holder, attached to a 4.7 ohm resistor and when I touch the ends to the nitinol, nothing happens.

Also I am kind of at a loss as to how I am going to acquire leg pieces.  I am looking for a design that will complement and ease the stress on the nitinol wire through a bouncy design.  The momentum of the bounce will ease the stress on the wires while ironically increasing stability, as it has been proven that precisely controled movement is less stable than a more random bouncing motion.

Thank you so much for your time, I really appreciate your advice.

ANSWER from Michael Bastoni on 3 March 2006:
While I am not a Nitinol expert, I am an information hound... so I checked around a bit and found way too much good information to digest quickly.

First thing I'd like to point out is that a cockroach (with which I am intimately familiar having lived for years in near equatorial regions) is a magnificent design to attempt to emulate.  Good luck!

The next point I'd like to make is this: Go data mining.  No only are most of the answers to your questions available at dozens of websites, but through the process of data mining, you will develop increasing literacy and technical acumen.

Through the extended process of researching and experimentation, you will quickly build a powerful knowledge base.

The few minutes I spent researching your questions led me to many good websites.  Websites written by nitinol experts!

Here is one nitinol heavy website I particularly liked.  In fact I bookmarked it.  It answered several of your questions and all of mine!



You will like the questions and answers posted that relate to current control, wire gauge and recovery speed.

I would like to leave you, and anyone else who reads this, with this thought:

The Internet is your connection to what is fast becoming the sum of man's knowledge.  Learn to use it as well as you possibly can.  Believe the answers you want are there somewhere, or until having exhausted your search energy, you are certain they are not... because maybe tommorrow or the next day they will be.

Anyway... I know I did not answer your question directly, not least because they are wonderful and big questions.... but I satisfied myself that the answers to your questions are available to you!

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What exactly does a robotics engineer do?

ANSWER from Sami Schilly on 10 November 2005:
First off, thank you for your question regarding robotics engineering.  According to the Princeton Review, Robotics Engineers design and maintain robots, develop new applications to utilize the potential of robots, and conduct research to expand the future potential of robotics.  Also according to the Princeton Review, manufacturing engineering is currently the field of engineering most invested in robotic development.

Engineering, as a whole, is the study and application of the sciences, predominantly physics and mathematics, to develop and maintain a variety of processes most deem vital in everyday life.  So for robotics engineering, depending on which concentration you would be most interested in, you would apply your learnings to develop the physical beings used in robotics (mechanical, electrical, computer science, manufacturing, possibly civil), the software used in robotics (mostly computer science), or there are even possibilities within aerospace engineering to create airborne robotics.  As you can see, there are many possibilities, and a defined field in specific robotic engineering is probably emerging as the search for new technology continues.

For more information about robotics, please check out our robotics interview pages, particularly Ayanna Howard's and Peter Abrahamson's, for more information:

For more information about Engineering and Technology, please check out these interviews:

Thank you for your question, and good luck in the future.

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Will Wendy be teaching a summer Robotics class this year?

ANSWER from Wendy Wooten on 11 July 2005:
Yes we are again offering our Summer Robotics Camps.  We group 3-4 students of similar age and robotics experience with one of our high school robotics team members as a counselor.  They learn how to design and build robots, how to use sensors (time, touch, light, rotation) and how to program the robots to accomplish tasks.  Then they choose exciting FIRST LEGO League challenges (Mission Mars, Arctic Impact, City Sights, No Limits) and design, build and program a robot to complete various tasks within that challenge.  They can then learn to write their own computer code to control the robot with a beginning language called NQC.  After that, we have the EduRobotics platform, similar to Erector sets, where the campers use motors, gears, pneumatics, electronics and computer programming to build robots to compete in exciting sports-like competitions.  The students think they are playing but actually are learning and applying  math, science and technology.  The campers range in age from 8 to 14 years, and the camp is held at our brand new, state of the art charter school, HighTechHigh, near Victory and Balboa.  If I can answer any further questions, please feel free to contact me.  We look forward to sharing our enthusiasm for robotics with any interested students.

Wendy Wooten
HTH Robotics Team 22

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I need to develop a robotics curriculum for a new "Robotics Class" at our high school.  Do you have any suggestions or teacher training courses that could help?

ANSWER from Mike Bastoni on 12 April 2005:
The GEARS Educational Systems Teacher Work Shop program is a 4-5 day course we offer teachers who are using our products to teach robotics.  Click here for an outline of lessons and activities mapped to national standards and particularly aimed at introducing aspiring engineers (and teachers) to the exciting world of engineering education using robots...and more!

FYI... My students and I are now involved in underwater robotic competitions with other high schools... this is really a cool use of robots.  We don't use them just to play games... we actually make useful ROV's that can really explore the watery depths of our planet... and after all, 2/3 of the earth is covered with water!

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What are robots?  Why are they important?  What jobs are threatened by robots?  Are the workers who perform them likely to be replaced by robots?  Explain with diagrams.

ANSWER from Stephanie Wong on 25 August 2004:
If you go to www.google.com, and type in "robots", you will find more than enough Internet sites that will tell you all about robotics.  What I will give you is an interesting site to peruse.  It is about "Valerie" which is a robot receptionist at Carnegie Mellon University.  The roboticists are working on this digital being in collaboration with the drama department to create a robot which resembles a real woman.  See here:


and here: http://www.ri.cmu.edu/projects/project_523.html

ANSWER from Michelle Mock on 2 August 2004:
This is a homework question and we do not do homework for you.  I'll make you a deal: if you research this subject and work hard on your essay, we will consider posting your paper at Imagiverse.  Have your teacher contact us if he/she thinks your work is your best.

Please do not send homework questions to on-line question and answer projects.  Q&A projects are intended to help you find information that is not easy to find or to clarify things you may find confusing.  The reason teachers assign homework is to give you an opportunity to learn something by thinking and wondering and researching.  If someone else gives you the answer, you are cheating yourself out of a valuable learning experience.

You deserve better.

Thank you for writing to Imagiverse.  I hope we hear from you again.

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I would like more information about the MER Robotics Education Program.  Is this intended to be a traveling program?  Is it still being developed, or is it ready to go?

ANSWER from Bonnie Walters on 11 March 2004:
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory's MER Robotics Education Program is up and going.  There are several ways it can be run.  It was intended for Junior High schools.  The main idea is that schools build a Marscape and a rover with an imaging system.  Then they swap rovers.  This means your rover is on another "unknown" Marscape. You send your commands to the rover during a pre-determined time slot, the other school carries out your commands and sends you back the images.  The science involvement is to make a panorama of the Marscape then reproduce it on a smaller scale (typically 2' X 2').  This means, craters, rivers... whatever it contains!  Depending on how complicated the Marscape is, it can be quite challenging.  At the end the schools meet at one place bringing their boards and replicas and do a bit of groundtruthing - to see how close they came to the real thing.

At my school we do it differently.  K-5th grade and 7th grade are involved.  Mesa Union is a K-8 school.  The Elementary Team (K-5) makes the Marscape and rovers.  Each grade is assigned a specific job: research, design, forming, papier mâché, gluing and sanding, and painting.  They also count and sort the rover pieces by color and shape and assemble them.  Next the completed boards come to MY house where they sit in my living room for 3 months till the end of the mission.  I then work with the 7th grade class on programming and imaging.  There is a considerable amount of math and measuring involved.  When the 7th grade launches and lands on the Marscape, they are emailing me the commands and I am sending the images to them.  It is truly a sight unseen since they were not involved with the Marscape.  At the end of the "mission" I bring the Marscape back to the school and they can see how close they were with their replicas.  Lastly, they divide into shifts and each grade comes through while the 7th grade students give them an oral presentation and show them the results of their work.

So to answer the traveling part of your question... I suppose so since it traveled to my house!  If your school has space to store the Marscape (8'X8') where the 7th graders won't see it that's great!  However you need Internet access and an ability to carry out their commands.  This is our second year running MER REP and the school loves it!  Each year teachers are welcome to join the mission and whoever signs up becomes a team member!  This year I am working with 13 teachers.  All mission jobs are broken up to grade appropriate levels and is curriculum driven for each grade.  As the kids move up the grades they get to do different jobs.

Is it still being developed?  I might tweak the way I teach programming and imaging each year as I become more proficient, but we are exploring Mars full steam ahead!  By the way, I am not a staff member but an interested volunteer who wants to give the kids the experience of a lifetime!

Bonnie J. Walters
NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador


ANSWER from Michelle Mock on 12 March 2004:
I adapted the MER Robotics project for use with my preschool Spanish class.  I also did the project with a group of 5th and 6th graders.  The two groups exchanged rovers.  You can read about their experiences at:

The project is very flexible.  You can pick and choose which parts work best in your classroom or school and adapt as necessary.  The project can also be done district wide as has been done in the Los Angeles Unified School District in Los Angeles, California.  Please write back with any specific questions you have about implementing the project in your classroom or school.  It is an incredible learning experience for all ages!

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Ayanna, I found your article inspiring.  I would love to become a robotics engineer, it's a dream I have had since I was young also.  Just as you, I was inspired and motivated by T.V. shows, especially the Bionic Woman, and I had the Radio Shack kit (as a matter of fact I still have one).  I am so fascinated by robotics, I have a work bench at home and I try and tackle a lot of different areas.  I am just now starting to look into STAMP and other microprocessors.  Anyway, I really don't know where to go or what to study at a college.  So, do you have any starter advice on where to go?  Any advice would be great.  Thanks.

ANSWER from Ayanna Howard on 8 August 2003:
Any field in engineering (mechanical, electrical, computer, etc.) is a good field to study in college.  It provides a good background on the theoretical skills necessary to understand the underlying workings of robotics.  Robotics is a hybrid area - you get experience in designing, building, programming, testing - if there's a word for it - robotics has it.

You're off to a very good start.  Experiencing on your own with the hands-on activities is great.  It's the nut-and-bolts that helps you solve the problems, along with the theory.  The STAMP kit is actually used in a lot of robotic competitions (FIRST, for example).  You should learn a lot.Keep up the fire!!

Dr. Ayanna Howard
Senior Technical Staff, Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Telerobotics Research and Applications Group
Mobility Systems Concept Development Section

DISCLAIMER: JPL now requires notice in all electronic communication that all personal and professional opinions presented herein are my own and do not, in any way, represent the opinion or policy of JPL.

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What does a person in the field of "Robotics & Automated Engineering Systems" do?  Are they separate fields or do they work hand in hand?

ANSWER from Ayanna Howard on 27 May 2003:
A person in Robotics is typically either a mechanical, electrical, or computer engineer.  There are different aspects invovled in this - some design the body (i.e. mechanical parts), others program the intelligence, and others build the brain (electrical).  All of the different disciplines need to work together in order to build a full working robotic system.  There is one school that has a "Robotics" major - and that is at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).  They actually combine all the fields into one, but typically it involves separate fields.

Ayanna Howard
Robotics Engineer
Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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How does 1/4 inch aluminum plate do in the BattleBots IQ competition?

ANSWER from Michael Bastoni on 18 February 2003:
Aluminum is a great material.  1/4" plate 6061 T-6 alloy is particularly suitable for building fighting robots.  It is similar in density to Polycarbonate.  Aluminum is not as tough as Polycarbonate.  That is to say if you whack aluminum it will deform... permanently.  Polycarbonate can absorb considerable energy without permanently deforming.

6061 T-6 aluminum welds beautifully and machines well also.  6061 T-6 cannot be bent!  It will fracture.  It is a very hard aluminum alloy.  Aluminum can be cut with a table saw.  Use a carbide tipped 80 tooth triple chip blade with 0 rake angle, or even better a negative 2-4 degree rake angle.  Any decent industrial tool shop will have one in stock.

All in all, aluminum is a great choice.  Easy to work with, light, machinable, weldable, fairly tough, fairly hard, fairly light, fairly inexpensive... an ideal compromise between steel and titanium.

Did you know one of the common titanium alloys is aluminum?

We use lots and lots of 1/4" 6061 T-6 plate in our designs.  It makes decent armor, and great motor mounts and chassis components.

Mike Bastoni
Robotics Educator
Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA

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I am interested in starting a robotics unit using robot kits that require some soldering.  However, my students are 3rd-5th graders.  I have twenty students in my class.  I have safety concerns and was wondering if you have any experience working with this age group.

ANSWER from Mike Bastoni on 14 November 2002:
About 9 years ago I began assembling robot kits that required soldering, gear set choices, decisions about motors, chain lengths, etc.  This robot building activity was wildly popular with my 9-12 grade students.  So much so that some of my students and I started a robot science and engineering summer program for younger kids:

Note: Gearscamp.com no longer exists.  The company is now Gears Educational Systems LLC and we manufacture robot kits for junior and senior high school technology and engineering programs.

We had kids from grades 4, 5, 6 and 7 attend our camps.  The short answer to your question is yes, they can do what is necessary but there are some caveats.

1.) Younger children require more supervision and assistance.  These kids are capable of completing sophisticated assemblies but they require proportionately more teacher/counselor input.

2.) Younger children are not always as aware of the potential hazards involved in many assembly tasks such as soldering and wiring circuits.  Again, they require closer management.  As you know, solder melts at dangerously high temperatures and no one wants to see an unsuspecting child get hurt.

In order to ensure close supervision we arranged children in teams of two and three, and we provided enough oversight (1 counselor per 2 teams) to ensure that the children always had immediate access to help and support.

Over the life of Gearscamp we learned that young children are capable of astounding success and achievement when they are provided with the opportunities to succeed and achieve... not a new discovery to be sure... but one that is always welcomed.

Good luck in your efforts to empower the "Little ones".

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23 September 2006

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