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James S. Voss,Expedition Two flight engineer, looks over an atlas inthe Zvezda Service Module

Design a Robot Helper

A Collaborative Activity
Teachers’ Page

The goal of this challenge is to engage students in a collaborative experience that parallels some of the research and design activities conducted by engineers at NASA. This challenge will:

  • Engage students in critical thinking, research and problem solving.
  • Arouse students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
  • Facilitate cooperative learning in the classroom.

Since this is a collaborative challenge, students should work as a team on the activity. We suggest that teams consist of three to five students. The entire class can investigate one question, or each team can investigate a different question and combine their findings in a final group design.

Team work is very important for success in any endeavour and is used extensively on all levels of NASA projects. Here are some suggested tasks that can be assigned to teams depending on the scope of your project:

Outline specifications
Build models

Key Questions
Students should research the questions that are appropriate for their grade level. Check the concepts associated with each question and the standards that align with these concepts.

In this challenge students investigate some key questions associated with designing robots for use in space.
  1. What should your robot buddy look like?
    Should the robot look like a person? What should be the robot’s size and shape?
    Tell students that recent estimates show that it costs approximately $30,000 to launch 1 kg into orbit. Consider the limitations of space inside the ISS modules.
  2. How will it get around?
    How is motion in a microgravity environment different from motion on the surface of the earth? How will the robot propel itself and avoid things that get in its way? How will the robot stop? How will the robot change direction? How will the robot "see" where it’s going? Don't forget the safety of fellow astronauts.
  3. How will you talk to it?
    Astronauts will want to give voice commands to the robot as it floats by or waits patiently beside the astronaut. How easy is it for a machine to understand and obey spoken commands? What technology needs to be used for this to happen? What are the challenges with this technology? (Ask a team-mate to be the robot and literally obey your every command. Is it easy for your team-mate to understand precisely what you want?) How should the robot communicate with the astronauts?
  4. What could it do for you? What could it do for astronauts on the ISS?
    The Space Station is like a giant, sealed, soda can. For the astronauts to be safe, the temperature must be just right. There are different gases in the air we breathe. A small mistake in the air composition could be dangerous. Could a robot be used to measure air temperature? How will the robot know that the air composition is just right for the astronauts? What should the robot do if there is a problem with the temperature or air composition?
  5. How will you know your robot from the others?
    If there is more than one robot on the ISS, how will the astronauts know which one is their robot?

Submissions will be done in two phases. Student who wish to have their preliminary designs reviewed may submit them by March 24. Final design should be submitted in time to be received between April 7 and 25. We may not be able to include any designs received after April 25. Submissions should include:

  • Drawing or picture of a model of the robot
  • Specifications that are grade-appropriate
  • Design explanations (how does the design answer the questions above)
We can accept only TWO submissions from each class. This is to allow the NASA experts sufficient time to review the designs that are submitted. We know that students work very hard on these projects, and we don’t want anyone’s project to be left out because we ran out of time.

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