Curricular Unit: How Do Sensors Work?

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

(left) Four drawings of human body parts (nose, ear, eye and hand/palm) representing four human senses (smell, hearing, sight and touch). (right) A photograph shows a LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 robot on a tabletop with a color sensor attached.
Human senses (left) and some LEGO sensor equivalents (right).
copyright
Copyright © (left) 2004 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052-6399 USA. All rights reserved. (right) Robot Square http://robotsquare.com/2015/10/06/explor3r-building-instructions/

Summary

Through six lesson/activity sets, students learn about the functioning of sensors, both human and robotic. In the activities, student groups use LEGO® MINDSTORMS® EV3 robots and components to study human senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch) in more detail than in previous units in the series. They also learn about the human-made rotation, touch, sound, color and ultrasonic sensors. "Stimulus-sensor-coordinator-effector-response" pathways are used to describe the processes as well as similarities between human/animal and robotic equivalent sensory systems. The important concept of sensors converting/transducing signals is emphasized. Through assorted engineering design challenges, students program the LEGO robots to respond to input from various LEGO sensors. The overall framework reinforces the theme of the human body as a system with sensors—that is, from an engineering perspective. PowerPoint® presentations, quizzes and worksheets are provided throughout the unit.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

The studies of neuroscience and engineering show us how the human brain and sensors are similar to human-made computers and robots, as far as their functioning. New findings show us that mathematical principles similar to those used in human brains and systems are useful for electrical, mechanical and biological engineers as they continue to devise better robots, computers and sensors. Engineer-designed sensors are used in a wide variety of applications, examples include speedometers, touchscreens, microphones, baby monitors, nightlights and medical ultrasound imaging. In growing fields such as biological engineering and systems neurobiology, engineers are becoming increasingly involved in human body research and efforts to replicate the functioning of its many systems. For instance, engineers are designing walking robots with sensors, artificial organs such as hearts and livers, and bio-sensors that monitor sugar levels for diabetics.

Computer programming is a component of many modern engineering designs. As students design robot programs throughout this unit, 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." Thus, the thought processes required to code programs that meet problem constraints are very similar, if not identical, to the thought processes required for traditional engineering design of physical objects and products.

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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.

  • Make observations to provide evidence that energy can be transferred from place to place by sound, light, heat, and electric currents. (Grade 4) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Use argument supported by evidence for how the body is a system of interacting subsystems composed of groups of cells. (Grades 6 - 8) 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?
  • Various relationships exist between technology and other fields of study. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Knowledge gained from other fields of study has a direct effect on the development of technological products and systems. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Describe how new technologies have helped scientists make better observations and measurements for investigations (e.g., telescopes, magnifiers, balances, microscopes, computers, stethoscopes, thermometers) (Grade 4) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • 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) 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?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Unit Overview

This unit is composed of six lesson/activity pairs related to the functioning of human senses and robot sensors. The unit is the fourth in a series and follows Humans Are Like Robots (unit 1), Our Bodies Have Computers and Sensors (unit 2) and What Is a Computer Program? (unit 3).

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:

  • LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT Base Set
  • computer loaded with the NXT 2.1 software

Two photographs: The LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 core set with many  components laying nearby. Eight LEGO robot components: three motors, intelligent brick/computer, two touch sensors, ultrasonic sensor and color sensor.
(left) The LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 core set and (right) some of its components.
copyright
Copyright © (left) LEGO MINDTSORMS https://education.lego.com/en-us/products/lego-mindstorms-education-ev3-core-set-/5003400; (right) my Robot Center https://www.myrobotcenter.eu/en/lego-mindstorms-ev3-basis-set-45544

Unit Schedule

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

  1. Lesson 1: What Is a Sensor? --> Activity 1:  Robot Sensors and Sound
  2. Lesson 2: What Is a Motor? How Does a Rotation Sensor Work? --> Activity 2: Master Driver
  3. Lesson 3: How Does a Touch Sensor Work? --> Activity 3: Music by Touch
  4. Lesson 4: How Does a Sound Sensor Work? --> Activity 4: Control Using Sound
  5. Lesson 5: How Does a Color Sensor Work? --> Activity 5: Follow the Light
  6. Lesson 6: How Does an Ultrasonic Sensor Work? --> Activity 6: Don't Bump into Me!

Contributors

Nishant Sinha; Trisha Chaudhary; Srijith Nair; Pranit Samarth; Satish S. Nair

Copyright

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

Supporting Program

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

Acknowledgements

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: November 17, 2017

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