Lesson plan: KS3 science – the physics of robotics

  • Lesson plan: KS3 science – the physics of robotics

We live in an age where robotics is commonplace. Robots build cars for us, carry out medical operations and can even check us into a hotel staffed only by robots providing room service when required! Some robots are specialised to carry out a particular function, others are designed to simulate a living creature; some are even designed to act, speak and behave like humans. Robots of various forms have been the principal Christmas present for children for a decade now, including classics such as LEGO Mindstorms. In this lesson we examine what a robot is, how robots are designed and some of the functions they perform for us. There are opportunities for students to discuss their own robots and to design a robot to perform a function of their choice. More able groups could even start a Raspberry Pi club to design a functioning programmable robot of their own. Students could look at some of the ethical concerns with robots including jobs and employment as well as sentient robots and how you could tell if you were speaking to a robot (introducing the Turing test). Finally we will look at the risks that are posed to humanity by robots and evaluate whether films such as The Terminator, iRobot and Ex Machina, raise real concerns about how robots should be created and used.


Computer science, physics, electronics, ethics and media studies fuse together in this KS3 lesson which explores what intelligence means and how our use of robots is driven by a need to automate and advance technology as well as a desire to create machine intelligence and convince ourselves that it is real. Students will enjoy the accessible programming concepts and can identify with some of the big ideas by discussing film adaptations, which supports differentiation of the lesson across a range of abilities.


Our robots

Group students in tables and ask them to brainstorm all the robots they have seen, used or heard about and draw a mind map on a large piece of paper.

These could include toys such as Lego, Robosapien, MiP, Teksta and Pleo as well as drones and robotic vacuums. Robots they have heard of might include the Mars Rovers, RoboChef, a kitchen robot and a number of different robots designed to behave like humans. Some might recall robots from films such as Wall-E, The Terminator, AI and iRobot. Prompt your students to add extra detail to the mind map including the physical features robots have, how we interact with robots and how we exercise control over them (for example through programming or remote control). Working in the same groups, students then design, draw and label a robot of their own. It could be a children’s toy, a useful home-helper, or a rover to explore a distant planet. To differentiate the activity you could allow some students complete autonomy in their design while providing increasing levels of support such as flash cards with ideas, images they can cut out and stick and newspaper or magazine articles featuring robots that they can take ideas from to use in their own designs. Use the posters and designs to create a robotics classroom display.


1. Artificial Intelligence

Robots mainly perform a function that we have decided for them. They are either programmed to carry out that function or are controlled remotely by a human operator to carry out the function. But will robots soon be able to teach themselves ... everything? Enter Darwin [AR1], a robot designed by researchers at Berkeley in California that is trying to teach itself to walk. Darwin, like a human child, teeters back and forth trying and falling, and then trying again before getting it right. Darwin is controlled, not remotely but via a neural network designed to mimic the human brain. Darwin’s baby steps speak to what many researchers believe will be the greatest leap in robotics — a kind of general machine learning that allows robots to adapt to new situations rather than respond to narrow programming. In this activity students hold a noughts and crosses competition between a human and an artificial intelligence: a ‘highly intelligent piece of paper’. The creators of this easily resourced and simple activity, from Queen Mary, University of London, claim that in this ongoing challenge between the best of humanity and the best of paperkind the paper has an unbeaten record [AR2]. One student will play for the piece of paper. Her role is to do exactly what she is told by the paper. She must switch off her highly intelligent brain and do just as she is commanded. The other player is there to represent the ‘best of humanity’. His job is to use all his intelligence to play as well as he can. Either the paper will win or it will be a draw (if the human realises he needs to go on the side not in the corners).

This activity aims to introduce the topic of what a computer program is and how everything computers do simply involves following instructions written by (creative) computer programmers. It also aims to start a discussion about what intelligence is and whether something that just blindly follows rules can really be considered to be ‘intelligent’.

2. Create a Face

Show students a video of a robot created to respond to emotions in a human voice [AR3]. Blade reacts to the voice of his creator; when he speaks gently the robot smiles, when he speaks angrily the robot is sad and when he shouts the robot is surprised, raising its eyebrows and looking puzzled.

Blade was programmed with a neural network and learned how to express emotions by tuning the connections (his neurons) based on his experience. Blade’s creator spent a lot of time shouting and talking softly to Blade, teaching him what the tone of his voice meant and so how to react.

Blade’s behaviour wasn’t directly programmed; it was the ability to learn that was programmed. In the student activity that follows, again from Queen Mary, University of London, the class will explore the side of robotics that relates to moods and emotions. The activity is fully resourced and ready to go thanks to the Computer Science for Fun working group [AR4].

The robot face used by the class is made out of card, tubes and themselves. It is ‘programmed’ to react to different kinds of sounds (nasty, nice or sudden) and show different emotions (sad, happy, surprised). The class then think up some other facial expressions and program sets of rules to make the face respond to sounds with the new expressions. They could try angry, tired, excited and so on.
To operate the face you need a minimum of six volunteers to come out to the front. They will control different parts of the robot face by following the instructions in the program. The remainder of the class will be making the noises or visuals that the robot reacts to. You can swap over and let others control the robot’s features. For a longer session you could allow the class to add extra things like closed eyes or a tongue. The students operating the face can see less of the overall effect – so film the activity and share the video as part of the development phase.

As an extension you could encourage the class to write rules to allow the face to react to things other than sounds – they could react to a performance by the other students such as music or dance. You could even have two robotic faces interacting with each other operated by each half of the class.


Lego and Raspberry Pi have joined forces with BrickPi [AR8]. The iconic Lego Mindstorm’s brain is replaced with Raspberry Pi in a powerful combination that will make the perfect STEM activity. The kits, available from Dexter Industries [AR9], would supplement an existing school Mindstorms and Raspberry Pi kit and enable students to create a huge range of innovative robotic solutions. Many examples are available with instructions and customisations online. Take for example Clocky the robot alarm clock [AR10]. Clocky is easy to set and adjust, plays custom songs, and can even sense when is the best time to wake you up. As a novel addition to a normal alarm clock, Clocky moves randomly around the room over any surface with ease playing a custom alarm tone making you work to turn it off! Not only that, but the robot will be able to sync to your Google Calender allowing for the alarm time to be adjusted using almost any device.Clocky moves randomly around the room over any surface with ease playing a custom alarm tone making you work to turn it off! Not only that, but the robot will be able to sync to your Google Calender allowing for the alarm time to be adjusted using almost any device.


Stephen Hawking has a stark warning: “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race” [ar7]. this has not discouraged many programmers and it looks likely that one of the first companies to reach true artificial intelligence with its software programs could well be google. google’s co-founder has been quoted as saying “the ultimate search engine will understand everything in the world.” this does seem remarkably close to what skynet becomes in the terminator movies so should we, like stephen hawking, be concerned? ask your gifted and talented students to take opposing sides in a debate on the matter, which could be conducted with the rest of the class as the audience.


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If the Terminator timeline were correct, robots would be ruling the world by 2018. For this to happen, though, it is likely that computers will have to pass the Turing Test, which is based around a number of questions that are meant to differentiate robots from humans. When Turing first proposed the test, he it based on a notional party game ‘The Imitation Game’ in which a man and a woman go into separate rooms and guests try to tell them apart by writing a series of questions and reading the typewritten answers sent back. In this game both the man and the woman aim to convince the guests that they are the other. Start by playing the human version of the Imitation Game with students working in groups to create questions that will help them to tell two students apart. These students leave the room in order to email their answers to the questions back to the class. After students have practiced the concept using each other, next use the Computer Science Unplugged resource on the Turing test [AR5] in order to test pre-prepared questions and computer answers to see if your students can tell a computer and human apart.


[Ar1] Robotic Toddler Learns To Walk ow.ly/vyuid
[Ar2] The Intelligent Piece Of Paper ow.ly/vyunr
[Ar3] The Emotional Robot ow.ly/ Vyurg
[Ar4] Create-a-face ow.ly/vyutb
[Ar5] The Turing Test ow.ly/vyuwe
[Ar6] Lego Engineering ow.ly/vyuxs
[Ar7] Stephen Hawking Cautions About Ai ow.ly/vyub6
[Ar8] Brickpi Starter Kit ow.ly/vyudj
[Ar9] Brickpi And Other Raspberry Pi Robots ow.ly/vyufm
[Ar10] Clocky The Rolling Alarm Clock ow.ly/vyuid


Dr Joanna L. Rhodes M.Chem, D.Phil, MRSC is a teacher of science at Shelley College, Huddersfield.