Hands-on Activity Control Using Sound

Quick Look

Grade Level: 5 (5-8)

Time Required: 45 minutes

Expendable Cost/Group: US $0.00

This activity uses some non-expendable (reusable) items such as LEGO MINDSTORMS robots and sensors; see the Materials List for details.

Group Size: 3

Activity Dependency:

Subject Areas: Biology, Computer Science, Life Science, Science and Technology

NGSS Performance Expectations:

NGSS Three Dimensional Triangle

Two photos: Two hands clapping. A palm-sized gray and white plastic oblong box-shaped device with cut-out openings on one side, filled with orange foam material (a LEGO sound sensor).
Engineers have developed robotic sound sensors that allow the sound of a hand clap to control a robot.
Copyright © (top) 2011 Evan-Amos, Wikimedia Commons; (bottom) 2009 Christian Reitter, Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hands-Clapping.jpg http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datei:Lego_mindstorms_nxt_normal_sound_sensor.jpg


Students gain a deeper understanding of how sound sensors work through a hands-on design challenge involving LEGO® MINDSTORMS® taskbots and sound sensors. Student groups each program a robot computer to use to the sound of hand claps to control the robot's movement. They learn programming skills and logic design in parallel. They experience how robots can take sensor input and use it to make decisions to move and turn, similar to the human sense of hearing. A PowerPoint® presentation and pre/post quizzes are provided. **Note: This activity uses the retired LEGO NXT robot which is no longer available for purchase.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Sound sensors take in the physical data of sound waves in a process that imitates the human sense of hearing. Sound sensors are increasingly engineered into every day devices For instance, when you use a phone, you are using a microphone, which is a sound sensor, to communicate your voice. The Skype system uses microphones at both ends so that people can hear each other. Many smartphones have sound sensors that can recognize your words by comparing them to recognizable sounds stored in memory; similar sound sensors are used to help blind people interact with computers and other devices. The use of sensors has exploded into the design of uncountable every day tools, equipment, appliances and devices.

Computer programming is a key component of many modern engineering designs. As students create robot programs in this activity, they must have a "goal" or "concept" of what the program solution needs to do and how, before they begin writing the code. Then, the process of working on the code and "debugging" it inherently constitutes "revising and improving their designs based on the results of testing." Hence, the thought processes required to code programs that meet problem constraints are very similar, if not identical, to those required for traditional engineering design of physical objects and products.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Program a LEGO robot to take input from sound sensors and activate motors to move.
  • Explain how the program and the sound sensors work.
  • Relate the program (robotic response to sound sensor information) to human responses to sound.

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.

NGSS Performance Expectation

MS-LS1-3. Use argument supported by evidence for how the body is a system of interacting subsystems composed of groups of cells. (Grades 6 - 8)

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This activity focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Use an oral and written argument supported by evidence to support or refute an explanation or a model for a phenomenon.

Alignment agreement:

In multicellular organisms, the body is a system of multiple interacting subsystems. These subsystems are groups of cells that work together to form tissues and organs that are specialized for particular body functions.

Alignment agreement:

Systems may interact with other systems; they may have sub-systems and be a part of larger complex systems.

Alignment agreement:

Scientists and engineers are guided by habits of mind such as intellectual honesty, tolerance of ambiguity, skepticism, and openness to new ideas.

Alignment agreement:

NGSS Performance Expectation

MS-LS1-8. 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)

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This activity focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Gather, read, and synthesize information from multiple appropriate sources and assess the credibility, accuracy, and possible bias of each publication and methods used, and describe how they are supported or not supported by evidence.

Alignment agreement:

Each sense receptor responds to different inputs (electromagnetic, mechanical, chemical), transmitting them as signals that travel along nerve cells to the brain. The signals are then processed in the brain, resulting in immediate behaviors or memories.

Alignment agreement:

Cause and effect relationships may be used to predict phenomena in natural systems.

Alignment agreement:

  • Explain how various relationships can exist between technology and engineering and other content areas. (Grades 3 - 5) More Details

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  • Explain how knowledge gained from other content areas affects the development of technological products and systems. (Grades 6 - 8) More Details

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  • Describe how new technologies have helped scientists make better observations and measurements for investigations (e.g., telescopes, electronic balances, electronic microscopes, x-ray technology, computers, ultrasounds, computer probes such as thermometers) (Grade 5) More Details

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  • Explain the interactions between the nervous and muscular systems when an organism responds to a stimulus (Grade 8) More Details

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Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

Each group needs:

To share with the class:

Worksheets and Attachments

Visit [www.teachengineering.org/activities/view/umo_sensorswork_lesson04_activity1] to print or download.

Pre-Req Knowledge

  • Experience using and programming the LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT robot and intelligent brick (computer) so that it takes input from sensors for decision making.
  • An understanding of how sound sensors work, both human and robotic, as presented in the associated lesson.
  • Completion of the What Is a Computer Program? (unit 3) so students have the knowledge and experience to create LEGO programs.
  • Completion of previous lessons and activities in this unit, specifically the What Is a Sensor? lesson.


From the previous lesson, we have learned how the sense of sound works. Now, how do we implement the "stimulus-sensor-coordinator-effector-response" framework in a LEGO robot?

Today, your design challenge is to carefully program the LEGO robot to move based on sound input. More specifically, your program must use a clapping sound to move a robot in different ways. Let's get started!


Before the Activity

  • Gather materials and make copies of the Control Using Sound Pre-Quiz and Control Using Sound Post-Quiz, one each per student. The quizzes are provided as separate attachments, and also embedded in the presentation so they can be presented to the class as a whole, if desired.
  • Assemble the LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT taskbot by following instructions at http://www.nxtprograms.com/five_minute_bot/steps.html or in the base set.
  • Perform the activity prior to doing it with students. Make sure you are familiar with the design challenge, the entire program, and have run it successfully. The programming solution is provided in detail on slides 7-11 of the presentation. Basics related to programming can be found in What Is a Computer Program? (unit 3), which is recommended to be conducted prior to this activity.
  • Use the 14-slide Control Using Sound Presentation, a PowerPoint® file, to teach and conduct the activity. Set up a computer/projector to show the presentation to the class. Instructions for how to use each slide to teach the activity are provided below.
  • Arrange for enough computers so you have one for each student group. Make sure each computer has the LEGO software loaded.

With the Students

  1. Administer the pre-quiz by handing out paper copies; the quiz is also on slide 2. The answers are provided for the teacher on slide 3 for discussion after students have completed the quiz.
  2. (slide 4) Prepare for the activity by dividing the class into groups of three students each. Distribute the assembled LEGO taskbots and the necessary parts to attach the LEGO sound sensors onto the taskbots. Have each group attach its sound sensor to its taskbot using the instructions in the LEGO base kit.
  3. (slide 5) As a quick review, remind students of the similarities between human and robot designs. Based on sensor input, your brain controls your hands. Similarly, based on sensor input, the LEGO intelligent brick commands its motor to move.
  4. (slide 6) Then introduce the activity's design challenge, describing the programming objective and what is to be done:
  • Design a program that causes the robot to move forward until a clap sound is detected by its sound sensor.
  • Once this occurs, have the robot turn right, and then continue moving forward until it hears a second clap, and then have the robot turn left.
  • Continue this sequence until the LEGO brick's "Stop" button (gray button below the orange button) is pressed.
  1. Have students work in their groups to come up with the logic of the program. Then have them create the program using a computer, download it to the NXT intelligent brick and test it, debugging and retesting as necessary. Slides 7-11 provide the programming solution for the teacher.
  2. Assist students as they work through the challenge. Make sure to check each group's plans and provide encouragement and suggestions so that they develop successful programs.
  3. Have each group demonstrate that its program works successfully. Use the grading rubric provided in the Assessment section.
  4. At activity end, lead a class discussion about the activity, as described in the Assessment section.
  5. Administer the post-quiz by handing out paper copies; the quiz is also on slide 12. The answers are provided on slide 13. Slide 14 contains vocabulary terms and definitions.


auditory: Related to hearing.

sensor: A device that converts one type of signal to another; for instance, the speedometer in a car collects physical data and calculates and displays the speed the car is moving.

stimulus: A thing or event that causes a reaction, such as a specific functional reaction in an organ or tissue.

ultrasonic: Sounds we cannot hear, but bats and dogs can.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Pre-Quiz: Before starting the activity, administer the Control Using Sound Pre-Quiz (also on slide 2) to assess students' base knowledge of sound and how a sound sensor works. Answers are provided on the Control Using Sound Pre-Quiz Answer Key (and slide 3).

Activity-Embedded Assessment

Programming for Success: Expect students to be able to come up with the logic for the program, and then assemble the program, as shown on slides 7-11. Students successfully meet this challenge if they are able to show that their robots are able to follow the clap commands and move in the correct sequence. Use the following rubric to assess the activity (maximum 30 points):

  • The sound sensor was correctly assembled on the robot (using instructions); up to 10 points
  • The logic of the program worked; up to 20 points

Post-Activity Assessment

Concluding Discussion: At activity end, lead a class discussion about the activity, asking students to share their experiences and lessons learned. Ask students:

  • What did you learn about programming principles?
  • Describe your experiences, including any difficulties you encountered.
  • How might sound sensors help real-world robots perform tasks?
  • Imagine how the ability to direct movement using sound could be used in real-world applications. Think about this and write down at least one idea. (Then have students share their ideas with the class.)
  • What might you now want to learn about sound sensors?

Post-Quiz: Administer the Control Using Sound Post-Quiz (also on slide 12) to assess students' understanding of the stimulus-to-response framework for robotic sound sensors and their ability to identify engineering examples of sound sensors. Answers are provided in the Control Using Sound Post-Quiz Answer Key (and slide 13).

Additional Multimedia Support

What is a transducer? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transducer

What is a sensor? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensors

List of sensors http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_sensors


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More Curriculum Like This

Upper Elementary Lesson
How Does a Sound Sensor Work?

Students learn about how sound sensors work, reinforcing their similarities to the human sense of hearing. They look at the hearing process—sound waves converted to electrical signals sent to the brain—through human ear anatomy as well as sound sensors.


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


Srijith Nair, Pranit Samarth, Satish S. Nair

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: March 30, 2021

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