Hands-on Activity: Understanding Communication with a Robot

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

Students program a LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 robot to navigate a maze.
Copyright © https://makerzone.mathworks.com/resources/edge-following-and-obstacle-sensing-lego-mindstorms-ev3-robot/


Student pairs first act out the instructions a robot is given with one person providing instructions and the other person following the instructions. This activity helps students understand how robots are programmed and with what type of precision commands must be given. Then students program LEGO® MINDSTORMS® taskbots to navigate a simple maze. The goal is to teach students that robot computers simply follow directions exactly as they are given, thus one must be very clear and logical with programming instructions.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Engineers have used robots to create many technologies students see every day, a number of which are presented in the associated lesson's PowerPoint presentation. In the activity, students act as if they are engineers designing programs to solve problems. In the lesson closure, students are asked to think creatively about ways they could use robots to solve problems. Through this lesson and activity, students build a basic understanding of robotics through looking at how engineers use them.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Define what a robot is.
  • Describe the main components of a robot.
  • Explain how the LEGO EV3 robot can be programmed to move.
  • Explain that troubleshooting is an important part of engineering something new.

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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.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

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.

  • Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool, or process such that an optimal design can be achieved. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • The development of technology is a human activity and is the result of individual and collective needs and the ability to be creative. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Identify a question that was asked, or could be asked, or a problem that needed to be solved when given a brief scenario (fiction or nonfiction of people working alone or in groups solving everyday problems or learning through discovery) (Grade 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

Note: This activity can also be conducted with the older (and no longer sold) LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT set instead of EV3; see below for those supplies:

  • LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT robot, such as the NXT Base Set 
  • computer, loaded with NXT 2.1 software


This activity is associated with the What is a Robot? lesson. In the activity, students learn to think like robots in order to learn how to program them. In the first part of the activity, students act out robot commands as part of a game, and in the second part they program LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 taskbots on computers.


EV3: A programmable "computer" brick that controls the LEGO robot.

robot: A machine that gathers information about its environment (senses) and uses that information (reads program) to follow instructions to do work (acts).

sensor: An object that detects a particular stimulus and relays information regarding said stimulus.

troubleshooting: A problem-solving method used to determine why a program is not working the way the programmer intended.


Refer to the Understanding Communication with a Robot Activity Presentation, which leads you step by step through the activity.

Before the Activity

  • Follow the instructions to build a taskbot for demonstration purposes at https://www.teachengineering.org/collection/umo_/activities/umo_robots_act/how_to_build_a_lego_taskbot.pdf. Expect this to take about 45 minutes.
  • Either build taskbots for each group in the class in advance, or allow enough class time for groups to build their own taskbots, which takes ~45 minutes.
  • Familiarize yourself with programming the taskbot as described in the activity PowerPoint presentation on slide 6.
  • Be prepared with tape or some other objects to mark out four points on the floor for Part I of the activity and determine where that will be.
  • Be prepared with objects to build a maze for the LEGO taskbots to navigate in Part II of the activity. Remember, these objects should be stable enough to withstand a hit from a robot running into them without falling.

Part I – Human Robot

  • Mark four points on the ground – say on the corners of a five-foot square. Increase the degree of difficulty by spacing the points farther apart.
  • Review slide 2 as a recap of the lesson from the previous day. Make sure students are clear on the concepts. Go over examples of robots if they seem unclear. Since the activity does not use sensors (the "input" device in a system) clarify that to the students in the following manner: A system may function in some cases without sensor inputs. For instance, a robot can move without using sensors, but it may hit a wall and stall. The robot cannot function without the computer (no way of "thinking") or without the output device (no way of "acting."
  • Divide the class into student pairs.
  • Ask one person in each group close his/her eyes and ask the other member to direct the first one around the room using verbal commands.
  • The goal is to become the first group to have the member with his/her eyes closed touch all four points following the rules on slide 4.
  • Go over the rules on slide 4 in detail with the entire class to make sure that they all understand the rules before proceeding.
  • After all of the groups have had the opportunity to touch at least a few of the points, bring the class back together to discuss what they discovered.
  • Ask students questions about the exercise they just completed in order to begin a discussion about what happened. Example questions: What did you find easy/difficult? What was the hardest part about the exercise? or Do you think this is a realistic way to think about a robot's computer sending outputs to tell the robot to move? Why or why not? The important thing is for the students to discuss how the exercise is similar or different than an actual robot. Expect that they will have discovered that it is difficult to command someone who is unable to sense his/her environment. It is also difficult to give thorough and precise commands without missing steps and details. Their experiences model the many challenges and difficulties in programming robots. Instructions must be very precise with EVERY detail included.

Part II – Solving the Maze

  • Create a maze with textbooks or wooden boards (or any other solid objects forming walls of the maze) – increase the size of the maze (add more turns) to increase difficulty.
  • Present students with the engineering design challenge on slide 7: Use the LEGO EV3 software to create programs to get the taskbots through the maze. Working as if you are engineers, you need to solve this problem on your own, designing the taskbot's programming as a team.
  • Use the PowerPoint slides 7-24 to get students started in programming with the EV3 software. Either go through these with the entire class or print them out for groups to follow on their own.
  • When students are almost done with their first programs, stop the class and get their attention. Remind them that it is pretty common for programs to not work the first time they are tested. The process of figuring out why the taskbot is behaving the way it is and not the way they want it to behave is called troubleshooting. Troubleshooting is a problem-solving method that engineers use to identify what is going wrong with a technical system like the taskbot. It is important to understand that troubleshooting is a part of the process and that most programs do not work perfectly the first time.
  • Some typical first-time issues for beginner programmers are listed on slides 25-31. A specific solution program (for teacher only) is provided on slides 32 and 33.
  • Conclude with a class discussion. Ask students: What is required when writing a program? How specific must programmers be when giving instructions to a robot? What was the hardest part of programming the robot? How did you overcome it?
  • Administer the post-assessment (slide 34).


Troubleshooting Tips

  • Make sure that robots are only run on tables to ensure that no damage occurs to them.
  • Slides 25 through 31 can be printed and provided to the students so that they can use them to troubleshoot their programs. These provide a lot of tips for troubleshooting the taskbots and programming.
  • A specific solution program (for teacher only) is provided on slides 32 and 33.


Pre-Activity Assessment

At the beginning of the lesson, administer a written pre-assessment to learn which students have experience with LEGO robots and EV3 software. To find out student preconceptions, ask students in a group setting about their knowledge of programming with EV3 software. Have they used the software or something like it before? Students who have used it before are good resources for the other students.

Post-Activity Assessment

Make copies of the post-assessment on slide 34 and administer at activity end. Answers are provided in slide 35.


Ajay Nair


© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2010 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: February 7, 2018