Hands-on Activity: Understanding Movement in Humans and Robots

Contributed by: GK-12 Program, Computational Neurobiology Center, College of Engineering, University of Missouri

A graphic showing various gears and wheels of different sizes.
Gears and wheels aid with motion.
Copyright © Pixabay http://pixabay.com/en/cogs-cog-wheel-drawing-gear-gears-213655/


This activity helps students understand how a LEGO® MINDSTORMS® robot moves using motors and wheels. Then students relate the concepts of decision-making actuation and motion in humans to their parallels in mechanized robots, and understand the common themes associated with movement.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

An important aspet of biological engineering and neuroscience is the ability to view the human body as a functioning, controlled system. Engineers use this systems approach when building robots. More and more research findings indicate that mathematical principles similar to those used in robotics are extremely useful or even necessary for a complete understanding of the human body. Within such fields as biological engineering, systems and neurobiology, engineers are becoming increasingly involved in research involving the human body and efforts to replicate the functioning of many of its systems.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Compare the functions of the components involved in movement in both a human body and in a robot.
  • Program an NXT robot to move based on the input it receives from a sensor.

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Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

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In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Use a model to describe that animals' receive different types of information through their senses, process the information in their brain, and respond to the information in different ways. (Grade 4) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Gather and synthesize information that sensory receptors respond to stimuli by sending messages to the brain for immediate behavior or storage as memories. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Explain the interactions between the nervous and muscular systems when an organism responds to a stimulus (Grade 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
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Materials List


See the Are We Like Robots? associated lesson for the activity introduction.


biceps: The muscle on the upper inside of the upper arm coming from two heads.

hamstring: Any of three muscles at the back of the thigh that function to flex and rotate the leg and extend the thigh.

limb: The arm or leg of a human being.

NXT: Programmable "computer" brick that controls a LEGO robot.

quadriceps: The muscle in front of the thigh, divided into four parts.

robot: A mechanism guided by automatic controls.

system: A group of interdependent components functioning as a unified whole; a set of methods or rules governing behavior.

tendon: A band of connective tissue that unites a muscle with some other body part (such as bone) and transmits the force exerted by muscles.

triceps: The muscle on the lower outside of the upper arm coming from three heads.


Refer to the Understanding Movement in Humans and Robots Presentation (a PowerPoint file) to conduct this activity.

Before the Activity

  • Make copies of the Movement in Robots Worksheet and the Post Activity Worksheet.
  • Build a taskbot for each group, as explained in the How to Build a LEGO NXT Taskbot. If you have an extra day, have the students follow the instructions to put together the taskbots.
  • Program one taskbot as described in the LEGO NXT Software Tutorial.

With the Students

  • Divide the class into groups of three or four students each.
  • Introduce the class to the LEGO NXT robot (taskbot) as describe on slide 8.
  • Introduce the NXT brick as the brain of the robot. However, this "brain" must be programmed, unlike humans who learn from experiences. Explain that it is the user-defined programming that tells the brick what to do (slide 9).
  • Introduce the equivalent of nerves in a robot (slide 10).
  • Introduce robot equivalents to humans (slide 11).
  • Explain how motors help robots move. Ask the class to compare the way robots move to the way people move (slides 12 -13).
  • Have everyone set up the LEGO NXT taskbots on the floor. Explain the engineering challenge: To make the robot move towards a wall, sense the wall once it gets close and back up when it is too close to a wall (slide 14).
  • Explain the working of the ultrasonic sensor and start programming (slide 15).
  • Walk the class through basic programming of the taskbot (slide 16).
  • Direct students on how to start the program they downloaded on the NXT brick and have students explain what they told their robot to do (slide 17).
  • Have students sit in groups and pass out the Movement in Robots Worksheet in (slide 18-19). Solutions to the activity sheet questions are given in slide 20.
  • Talk about energy sources in humans and robots (slide 21).
  • Compare the process of deciding to move in humans and robots (slide 22).
  • Provide a summary of humans vs. robots (slide 23). Ask students identify some other ways in which robots are similar to human brains.
  • Administer the post-activity worksheet (slide 24).


Troubleshooting Tips

Troubleshooting is an important part of programming. This activity provides many opportunities for students to learn to find problems on their own, with some teacher guidance if necessary. If a group is having trouble programming, ask them to explain to you what the program does, starting at the beginning. While they are explaining, look at their program to make sure it matches the explanation. If you are not sure what a part of the program means, refer to the NXT reference guide or legoengineering.com


Pre-Activity Questioning: To find out student preconceptions and base knowledge, ask students in a group setting about their knowledge of brain anatomy, computer parts and NXT sensors, and write student responses on the board.

Worksheet: Administer the Student Post-Activity Worksheet (slide 24).

Post-Activity Game: Conduct the Jeopardy Game by using the Jeopardy - Understanding Movement in Humans and Robots PowerPoint file, which is designed to play an entire game of Jeopardy using lesson and activity content.

  • Divide the class into groups of two to four student each.
  • During each group's turn, ask them to choose a category.
  • Use the mouse left key to click on the "student choice" to reveal a jeopardy question. Click on the "question" icon on the slide to reveal the correct answer.


Ajay Nair; Charlie Franklin; Ashwin Mohan; Satish Nair


© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2009 Curators of the University of Missouri

Supporting Program

GK-12 Program, Computational Neurobiology Center, College of Engineering, University of Missouri


This curriculum was developed under National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. DGE 0440524. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: June 6, 2017