Lesson: Human and Robot Sensors

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

Three photos show three of the five human sensors: a person's eyes, a person's ear and a girl holding her nose and making a face due to a bad smell.
Three of the five human senses
Copyright © (top left) US Department of Veteran Affairs , (lower left) State of Ohio, (right) City of Mesa, AZ http://www.lexington.va.gov/features/May_is_Healthy_Vision_Month.asp http://www.tclw.das.ohio.gov/Default.aspx?tabid=325 http://www.mesaaz.gov/energy/ngsmell.aspx


Students are provided with a rigorous background in human "sensors" (including information on the main five senses, sensor anatomies, and nervous system process) and their engineering equivalents, setting the stage for three associated activities involving sound sensors on LEGO® robots. As they learn how robots receive input from sensors, transmit signals and make decisions about how to move, students reinforce their understanding of the human body's sensory process.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Biological engineers and neuroscientists perceive the human body as a functioning, controlled system, similar to a robot. Research shows that mathematical principles similar to those used in robotics are extremely useful or even necessary for a complete understanding of the human body. This lesson compares the human senses with similar sensors designed for robots. Researchers study how pressure sensors in the human fingers and the multiple fingers work so that they can design efficient robotic hands. They also study how the human eye works so that they can design cameras with higher performance and speed.

Pre-Req Knowledge

  • An understanding of the five senses of the human body and their functions.
  • Familiarity with robots and the tasks they perform. For example, robots are used to paint cars on assembly lines.
  • We suggest students complete the previous unit in the series, Humans Are Like Robots, and the previous activity, That's Hot! Robot Brain Programming, prior to starting this activity.

Learning Objectives

After this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Describe how the five human senses work.
  • Compare human senses to the electronic sensors in robots.

More Curriculum Like This

What Is a Sensor?

Students gain a rigorous background in the primary human "sensors," as preparation for comparing them to some electronic equivalents in the associated activity. Students learn the concept of "stimulus-sensor-coordinator-effector-response" to describe the human and electronic sensory processes.

Elementary Lesson
Brain is a Computer

Students learn about the similarities between the human brain and its engineering counterpart, the computer. Since students work with computers routinely, this comparison strengthens their understanding of both how the brain works and how it parallels that of a computer.

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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.

How Do Human Sensors Work?

This lesson highlights the similarities between human sensors and their engineering counterparts. Taking this approach enables students to view the human body as a system, that is, from the perspective of an engineer. Humans have recreated most human sensors in robots – eyes, ears and sensors for te...

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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.

  • 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?
  • 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, 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?
  • Identify receivers of visible light energy (e.g., eye, photocell) (Grade 6) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Make qualitative observations using the five senses (Grade 6) 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


Today, we'll start with an overview of the human senses and how they work. For instance, how do your eyes enable you to see something? We will also look at how your ears, nose and sense of taste work. Once you have a good understanding of how the human senses work, we will look at the parallel sensors designed for robots and how they work.

Lesson Background and Concepts for Teachers

Teacher Notes

  • This lesson explores human sensors and how they function, as well as their engineering counterparts, robot sensors. Deliver to students the content information and detailed explanations provided in the Human and Robot Sensors Presentation (a PowerPoint file) using the guidance and suggestions provided below.
  • Make copies of the Pre-Lesson Quiz and Post-Lesson Quiz.
  • At lesson end, conduct the associated activities to strengthen students' understanding of sound sensors, in particular, and to expand their experiences in programming LEGO TaskBots.

PowerPoint Outline Information (slides 1-19)

  • Begin by administering the pre-lesson quiz, which is also provided as slide 2 for showing to students. Slide 3 shows the quiz answers to aid in a class discussion after students have completed their quizzes.
  • Today's lesson provides an overview of the human senses and the corresponding robot sensors (slide 4). In the activities that follow, we will learn how sound can be used to command robots to move in a certain manner.
  • Explain what is meant by a sensor (slide 5), followed by an overview of some of the human sensors (senses) and their roles in signal transmissions that takes place in the nervous system (slides 6-7).
  • Ask students about the steps involved in the process of our brain receiving information detected by our sensors. Write student responses on the classroom board, but do not give them any help. They should be able to get the idea of a sensing element (the eye, for example), and then the transmission of the signal to the brain (via the nervous system). Once all students have had a chance to provide a response, explain how this process works for vision (slide 8), and then provide students with more details about how the eyes work (slide 9).
    Photo shows car chassis moving through an automated assembly line, surrounded by robots performing welding and other tasks.
    Highly sophisticated robots use many types of sensors to perform precision work on assembly lines.
    Copyright © NASA http://mynasa.nasa.gov/worldbook/wbkids/k_robot.html
  • Explain the human ear sensor in a similar manner, using the ear anatomy vocabulary (slides 10-11).
  • Explain how the human nose works (slide 12). Show students the short How Smell Works video (1:49 minute) at the provided link in slide 12, which also point out how dogs have a much richer sense of smell compared to humans.
  • Explain the sense of taste (slide 13). (Note that the sense of touch is not covered in this lesson since that was covered in the previous lesson, Brain is a Computer, and its associated activity.)
  • Before moving on, ask students: Which human senses have been duplicated in robots? Write student response on the classroom board. Proceed once all students have had a chance to respond.
  • Move from a discussion of the human sensors to robot sensors, pointing out the equivalent process (slide 14), and recall the "stimulus-sensor-coordinator-effector-response" framework learned in the previous lesson.
  • Explain each of the robot sensors for touch and light, (slide 15), sound (slide 16), and ultrasonic (slide 17).
  • Then revisit students' guesses as to which human senses have been duplicated in robots (on the board) by using the information on robot equivalents of human senses on slide 18.
  • Describe for students some examples of real-world robots and their sophisticated capabilities using sensors designed by engineers to mimic human sensors (slide 19).
  • Administer the three-question post-lesson quiz, as described in the Assessment section. Then proceed to conduct all or some of the three associated activities.


auditory: Related to hearing.

peripheral: Surrounding.

refracted: Bent or turned by passing through another medium. For example, light is refracted as it passes from air to water.

sensor: A device that converts one type of signal to another. For instance, a tachometer that displays the speed a car is traveling.

ultrasonic: A frequency of sound that humans cannot hear, but dogs and bats can.

Associated Activities

  • Commanding a Robot Using Sound - Student teams explore the auditory sense by programming LEGO TaskBots to follow commands based input from sound sensors, which relay information to computer "brains." Students gain more experience in LEGO robot programming, as well as a hands-on exposure to the capabilities of sound sensors.
  • Hearing: How Do Our Ears Work? - Building on their experiences from the previous activity, students learn about the anatomy of the ear and how ears work as sound sensors. Through a hands-on activity using LEGO robots, they see how a NXT brick converts the intensity of sound measured by its sensor input into a number that displays on its screen, parallel to human ears transmitting signals to the brain.
  • Sound from Left or Right? - Why do humans have two ears? Students learn about directional hearing and how our brains determine the direction of sounds by the time lag of sound waves to our ears. Student pairs use experimental set-ups that include the headset portions of stethoscopes to investigate directional hearing.



Pre-Lesson Quiz: Administer the three-question Human and Robot Sensors Pre-Lesson Quiz (also shown as slide 2 in the PowerPoint file, with answers on slide 3) to help students begin thinking about their own senses and sensors, how their sensors work, and similar robot sensors, and to gauge students' base knowledge.

Post-Lesson Quiz: Administer the three-question Human and Robot Sensors Post-Lesson Quiz, giving students a chance to use their newly acquired knowledge to answer similar questions as in the pre-lesson quiz. Review students' answers to gauge their progress.

Lesson Extension Activities

Assign students to research human-made sensors that mimic human body sensors beyond the sensors that come with the LEGO robots. What are the real-world applications for all these sensors? For starters, read the July-August 2011 five-part series by Carolyn Mathas called, The Five Senses of Sensors, in the Digi-Key Corporation Sensor Solutions Library: Touch, Smell, Taste, Sound, Vision. Of particular interest are, break-through sensors that mirror the human nose and tongue, called the e-nose and e-tongue. Search for the articles at http://www.digikey.com/techzone/archive.page?site=us&lang=en&zone=sensors.

Additional Multimedia Support

Information on parts of the brain at Bryn Mawr College's Serendip Studio's page titled, "Brain Structures and their Functions" at http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/bb/kinser/Structure1.html

NXT robots and sensors: http://mindstorms.lego.com/en-us/whatisnxt/default.aspx

American Optometric Association's How Your Eyes Work web page: http://www.aoa.org/x6024.xml

Women's and Children's Health Network, Kid's Health's How Your Eyes Work web page: http://www.cyh.com/HealthTopics/HealthTopicDetailsKids.aspx?p=335&np=152&id=1730

Wiki Answers' Compare the Parts of a Camera to the Human Eye? web page: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Compare_the_parts_of_a_camera_to_the_human_eye

Women's and Children's Health Network, Kid's Health's How Your Ears Work web page: http://www.cyh.com/HealthTopics/HealthTopicDetailsKids.aspx?p=335&np=152&id=1463

How Stuff Works' How Smell Works video by Marshall Brain (1:49 minutes): http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/461-how-smell-works-video.htm

How Stuff Works' How Does the Sense of Smell Work? web page: http://www.howstuffworks.com/question139.htm

How Stuff Works' How Taste Works by Sarah Dowdey web page:http://health.howstuffworks.com/taste.htm


Sachin Nair, Charlie Franklin, Satish Nair


© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2012 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 number 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