Teaching Engineering Concepts with Robotic Snakes

When Victoria Serrano was growing up in her native Panama, one of her favorite childhood pastimes was playing with Legos.

Now completing her Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe while on leave from the Technological University of Panama in David where she is an assistant professor of electrical engineering, she was inspired to use high-tech Lego Mindstorms EV3 kits as key components to teach engineering concepts to high school students in Panama.

Serrano received a US$5,850 grant from EPICS in IEEE to partner with Technological University to teach the students to build robotic
snakes. With the participation of other ASU students, in mid 2015 she built and tested experiments to create and operate a Lego EV3
snake, which works with a Wi-Fi nano adapter, a USB cable, and Matlab and Simulink software.

In October, in four after-school workshops on the university campus, 20 area high school students – many of them girls – learned how
to assemble the kits and to write software controlling the snake’s movements, such as slithering on a curved course. The students also competed to build the fastest snake, and to help their public speaking skills, they gave presentations about their experiments and the engineering concepts they had learned.

Afterward, some of the Lego Mindstorm kits used in the project were donated to the David-area schools that participated, enabling local IEEE groups to repeat the robotic snake workshop with more students. Other kits are being used by ASU students in outreach activities with Tempe-area middle and high school students.

“Youngsters often see engineering concepts as difficult and boring, but presenting the information in a way that combines a hands-on approach with a cool, fun activity like robotics can help them see engineering differently,” Serrano says.

In early January 2016, she presented her paper on the project at the 14th International Conference on Education in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Next, she plans to seek funding from the National Science Foundation and the National Space Grant and Fellowship Program to expand the program to reach more students in the United States as well as help sustain the program in Panama.

Author: Jeny Dowlin