With open source software and guided directions from Science Buddies, students can explore the ways in which robotics engineers test designs before choosing which designs to prototype. This student put her own robots to the test—on her computer—and walked away with a blue ribbon at a local fair.With many schools offering extracurricular or after-school robotics clubs and programs, more and more students are exploring robotics engineering. Hands-on projects like building an ArtBot or BristleBot make it easy for families to tackle a robotics building activity at home with fairly easy-to-come-by supplies like toothbrush heads, coin cell batteries, and plastic cups.
While making a cute bot that shuttles about on toothbrush bristles can be empowering and rewarding for kids, designing effective robots involves more than just the mechanics of assembly. Being able to test different approaches to a robot design or its materials before investing time and money in building offers many advantages for engineers. If the goal is to create a robot creature that can move quickly from Point A to Point B, which design will work best?
Building three different working models, each with different approaches to mobility, is not always a practical approach given issues of time, materials, and money. If, instead, an engineer can do some preliminary testing and gauge the benefits or drawbacks of various design options, she may be able to save time and money and invest energy working on the design that shows the most promise for a given challenge or need. One approach to evaluating designs involves using computer software, like VoxCAD, to simulate various designs and conditions. VoxCAD is an open source, cross-platform physics simulation tool originally developed by Jonathan Hiller in the Creative Machines Lab at Cornell University.
In the field, using simulation software can be an important pre-build and testing step for robotics engineers. In the classroom, simulation software allows students to explore robotics without prior engineering experience. With a suite of VoxCAD Project Ideas at Science Buddies, students can experiment with robotics engineering at the virtual level, no circuits, batteries, or soldering required.
"The neat thing about VoxCAD is that kids can jump straight in to the deep end," says Dr. Sandra Slutz, Lead Staff Scientist at Science Buddies. "It takes a lot of mechanical engineering, electronics, and even programming know-how to create robots with different mobility strategies, but using VoxCAD, a student whose curiosity is sparked can start designing those robots in just a few minutes without all the time it takes to develop those skills."
With robotics simulation, exploring robotics and comparing designs doesn't require building multiple robots. Instead, students can get started right at their computers. After mocking up, visualizing, and testing their three dimensional ideas using VoxCAD, students who want to learn more about hands-on robotics engineering can explore circuit-based robot building projects in the robotics area at Science Buddies and move from virtual to real-world robotics design, building, and engineering.
Thinking 3D: Student Robotics
Laura was in 4th grade when her mom showed her a new VoxCAD project at Science Buddies. Laura, who wants to be a website developer in the future, was fascinated by the idea of designing three-dimensional robots and decided to give the introductory "Robot Race! Use a Computer to Design, Simulate, & Race Robots with VoxCAD" project a try.
"My mom showed me a VoxCAD video, and I became attached," says Laura. "I liked the way the creatures moved. I thought that was very interesting that the computer was able to bring them to life. And I wanted to learn how to do that."
When her mom told her about VoxCAD, Laura didn't have a science project assignment due. She chose to experiment with VoxCAD on her own. "I just thought it looked fun and wanted to try it," says the budding engineer, noting that robotics engineering wasn't an area of science she was already interested in or had explored before.
Laura enjoyed working with VoxCAD and trying different robot designs. In a video she created to accompany her project, Laura describes the movement of each design as the three-dimensional block-based robots move around on screen. She refers to the three models she created and tested as the "fastman snail," the "shimmier," and the "sidewinder," and her testing shows clear differences in the effectiveness of each. Using VoxCAD, she was able to bring the three robot designs to life on the screen and put them in motion to see how they would move and which would move farthest.
The best part of the experience, says Laura, was watching her creations move in the VoxCAD Physics Sandbox. "I learned to think in 3D," she adds. After finishing her project, Laura entered it in the science division of the Alameda County Fair where she won a first prize blue ribbon.
Congratulations to Laura!
To learn more about VoxCAD and to experiment with your own three-dimensional robot design and testing, see the following Project Ideas:
- Robot Race! Use a Computer to Design, Simulate, & Race Robots with VoxCAD
- Hard, Soft, or in Between? Changing Material Properties in Robot Design with VoxCAD *
- The World Is Your (Physics) Sandbox: Changing the Settings in a Robot Simulation with VoxCAD *
- Eco-Friendly Robots: Design the Most Energy-Efficient Racing Robot Using VoxCAD *
For suggestions about family robotics projects and activities and ways to engage your students with introductory robotics exploration, see: Bot Building for Kids and Their Parents: Celebrating Student Robotics, Create a Carnival of Robot Critters this Summer, Robot Engineering: Tapping the Artist within the Bot, and Family Robotics: Toothbrush Bots that Follow the Light.
Today, February 20, 2014 is Girl Day, part of Engineers Week. Don't miss the chance to make a difference in a student's life and future by taking the opportunity to introduce students to the world of engineering today and every day.