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Curricular Unit: What Is a Computer Program?

Quick Look

Grade Level: 5 (5-8)

Choose From: 4 lessons and 4 activities

Subject Areas: Computer Science, Science and Technology

A screen capture image shows a series of symbols and icons representing a LEGO EV3 robot program. A photograph of a girl sitting cross-legged with a laptop and both hands raised in victory.
Students explore the logic behind programming
Copyright © (left) http://www.legoengineering.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Screen-Shot-2013-12-18-at-9.23.49-AM.png; (right) 2004 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052-6399 USA. All rights reserved. http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/images/results.aspx?qu=computer&ex=1#ai:MP900448599|


Through four lesson and four activities, students are introduced to the logic behind programming. Starting with very basic commands, they develop programming skills while they create and test programs using LEGO® MINDSTORMS® robots. Students apply new programming tools—move blocks, wait blocks, loops and switches—in order to better navigate robots through mazes. Through programming challenges, they become familiar with the steps of the engineering design process. The unit is designed to be motivational for student learning, so they view programming as a fun activity. This unit is the third in a series. PowerPoint® presentations, quizzes and worksheets are provided throughout the unit.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

We interact with computers and their programs in uncountable ways during our everyday lives. Engineers in all fields use and design computer programs to perform calculations, run simulations, program machines and much more. When you turn on any computer, a program called the "operating system" runs and lets you access the various computer and software features. The computers, tablets and phones that students use contain all sorts of programs and "apps," and it is important for them to understand that people have created them. As computers are increasingly used to tackle all types of problems, learning how to program becomes an essential skill for most engineers—and everyone!

Unit Overview

This unit is composed of four lesson/activity pairs designed to introduce students to programming skills using LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 robots by having them learn and develop programs to control taskbot movements. The unit is the third in a series and follows Humans Are Like Robots (unit 1) and Our Bodies Have Computers and Sensors (unit 2).

Students first gain an understanding of algorithms. Then they are introduced to programming via quick programming using the LEGO intelligent brick (computer). Then they move on to program with move blocks using the LEGO software on a computer. Next, they learn about conditional commands and how to program using sound and touch sensors rather than by specifying exact durations. Eventually, they program LEGO robots using combinations of move blocks, wait blocks, loops and switches. In the final activity, students use Android phones with Bluetooth wireless connections to remotely guide their LEGO robots through a maze.

To help convey the concepts, students occasionally act out maze demos. Students also learn about electrical connections, both wired and wireless, and their pervasiveness in our world. They follow the Morse code rules in order translate a few phrases into Morse code while learning that it is a communication method that takes advantage of on/off states to transmit messages by electrical bursts.

Through assorted programming challenges, students become familiar with the steps of the engineering design process, especially gaining experience with iteration in order to achieve successful programs. While performing fun activities with the EV3 robots, students may not realize that they have learned computer programming in the process. The activities open students' eyes to how similar logic programs are incorporated into the many everyday devices we use.

Throughout this unit, each group of (2-4) students requires all or portions of the following items:

Specific and/or additional required materials are indicated in the individual lessons and activities.

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:

  • computer loaded with the NXT 2.1 software

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.

See individual lessons and activities for standards alignment.

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After completing the associated lesson, students test their understanding in two programming tasks that utilize LEGO® MINDSTORMS® NXT robots and sound/touch sensors. They create programs that make the robots change speed several times when a touch sensor is pressed.

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Unit Schedule

Each lesson and activity is designed to take one or two 50-minute session, for a total of eleven 50-minute sessions for the unit. The suggested order to conduct the lesson/activity sets is shown below:

  1. Lesson 1: What Is a Program? --> Activity 1:  Navigating a Maze
  2. Lesson 2:  How Do You Make a Program Wait? --> Activity 2:  Wait Program!
  3. Lesson 3: How Do You Make Loops and Switches? --> Activity 3:  Using Waits, Loops and Switches
  4. Lesson 4:  What Is Bluetooth? --> Activity 4: Remote Control Using Bluetooth

Other Related Information

Show students the inspirational Code.org video titled, "What Most Schools Don't Teach," (5:43-minutes) to learn about a new "superpower" that isn't being taught in 90% of U.S. schools (computer programming!), starring Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, will.i.am, and many other software development and technology leaders. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nKIu9yen5nc

Quotations from the short film include: "Everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer because it teaches you how to think," "we all depend on technology... and yet none of us know how to read and write code!" "software is really about humanity—it's about helping people by using computer technology," "great coders are today's rock stars," "the programmers of tomorrow are the wizards of the future — you're gonna look like you have magic powers compared to everybody else," and "it's the closest thing we have to a superpower."


© 2014 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2013 Curators of the University of Missouri


Riaz Helfer, Sachin 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: June 12, 2019

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