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Activity: Strong-Arm Tactics


Why do we care about a robotic arm? What does a robotic arm have to do with engineering? Creating
such an arm comes from a design that involves mechanical, electrical, and computer science engineers.
As expected, students generally do not know the complexity that goes into building and programming a
robotic arm. This activity allows students to control a robotic arm from both a machine's and a computer
science engineer's perspective by performing a simple task with a few instructions and constraints.
Engineering Connection

Category 1. Relating science concept to engineering The original engineering design requirements for
the Spirit and Opportunity rovers included a single robotic arm with an extensive range of motion and
ability to hold four inspection instruments. With the advancement of technology through engineering
applications, engineers at NASA determined that a more advanced arm was needed. So engineers worked
together to make a more useful, functional arm for their rover. The final robotic arm has five degrees of
freedom and is capable of moving in just about any direction. This movement is enabled by three joints, a
shoulder, elbow and wrist, which the engineers modeled after a human arm. To provide the five degrees
of freedom, mechanical engineers used many geared motors at the shoulder, elbow and wrist.


1. Learning Objectives
2. Materials
3. Introduction/Motivation
4. Procedure
5. Safety Issues
6. Troubleshooting Tips
7. Assessment
8. Extensions
9. Activity Scaling
10. References - Free resources for K-12 1/6

Grade Level: 8 (6-8) Group Size: 2
Time Required: 50 minutes Activity Dependency :None
Expendable Cost Per Group : US$ 80
Note: Although this activity has a high initial startup cost, the robotic arm purchased for this activity can
be used repeatedly for many classes, subsequently lowering its cost per use â— thus becoming more cost
Keywords: Mars, robot, robotics, Mars rover, degrees of freedom, joint, robotic arm
Related Curriculum :

subject areas Earth and Space

Science and Technology
curricular units Mission to Mars
lessons Red Rover Robotics
Educational Standards
• Colorado Science
• b. Describe methods and equipment used to explore the solar system and beyond (Grade 8) [2009]
• International Technology Education Association-ITEA STL Standards Technology
• F. New products and systems can be developed to solve problems or to help do things that could not be
done without the help of technology. (Grades 6 - 8) [2000]
Learning Objectives (Return to Contents)

Robotic Arm.
After this activity, students should be able to:

• Describe similarities and differences between human arms and robotic arms.
• Describe challenges engineers face when designing robotic arms.
• Define degrees of freedom and understand how a robotic arm depends on its number of degrees
of freedom.
• Describe cause-effect relationships between control commands and outcomes within a system.

Materials List

Each class should have:

• Robotic Arm (average cost is $80) (Available at many hobby stores or online at:, , or - Free resources for K-12 2/6
• 1 Martian rock (an Earth rock may be used in place of a Martian rock, but it must fit into the
robotic arm's gripper)
• Stopwatch or timer
• Cloth blindfold

Introduction/Motivation (Return to Contents)

Have you ever seen someone dance like a robot or machine? What is their secret to this mechanical
motion mastery? It's simple, really: while dancing, they limit their body's number of degrees of freedom at
any given time and move in jerky motions. The term degrees of freedom describes a certain direction of
motion — and its opposite — in a joint or connection. This can best be illustrated by joints in your body.
Your elbow and knee joints, which are like a door hinge, can only swing open and closed and thus only
have one degree of freedom. Some joints have multiple degrees of freedom. Your wrist and neck can
move up and down, side to side, and rotate clockwise and counterclockwise, thus having three degrees of
freedom. Your body as a whole has well over 100 degrees of freedom! The trick to dancing "the robot" is
to move while utilizing only a few degrees of freedom.

If you think dancing like a robot is difficult, then just imagine being the engineers who designed the
robotic arm for the Mars rovers. Their challenge was to design a versatile and agile arm using only five
degrees of freedom. In comparison, your arm alone has over 26 degrees of freedom! Engineers from
several disciplines, including mechanical, electrical, and computer science, had to come together to
design the arm. The following activity is designed to give you a perspective of the difficulty of
controlling a robot arm from both a machine's and a computer science engineer's point of view. Let's learn
how engineering contributes to space research through the design of an arm that moves freely.


Before the Activity

• Purchase robotic arm and gather all materials.

• Neatly draw and label a large picture of the controller (robotic arm) on the board (illustrated at:
• Set up the arm in an easily accessible and visible area to the students. Draw or mark two circles
on opposite sides of the arm. These circles will be the initial and final destinations of the rock.

With the Students

1. In front of the class, show the students how the mechanical arm works by demonstrating its
degrees of freedom with the controller. Also, pick up the rock with the arm, and move it to the
other marked circle.
2. Explain to the students that they will have to repeat the same operation, but on teams of two with
particular guidelines.

• The student with the controller will be blindfolded and named the "Controller."
• The other student must act as the "Eyes," and tell the Controller what to do.
• The team with the fastest time will be the winners.

3. Separate the class into teams of two (in advance or label off by numbers) and have them review
the controls on the robotic arm, which should be drawn and labeled neatly on the board. The Eyes - Free resources for K-12 3/6

needs to come up with a systematic and effective way to communicate to the Controller to
efficiently move the rock. Allow the class 10-15 minutes to develop their moving strategy.
4. Student teams should repeat the process several times to perfect their strategy.
5. At the beginning of each team trial, position the arm straight up in the air in the same position to
make each trial fair between teams.
6. Time how long it takes each team to move the rock and announce the winners. What was the
secret to their success? Did they develop a strategy and communicate effectively? Discuss as a

Safety Issues

Remind students to be very careful with the robotic arms, as they are expensive and can be damaged.

Troubleshooting Tips

If you have an odd number of students, either have the third student be the official timer, or allow a group
of three to have two attempts to move the rock so each of students gets a turn to be either the Eyes or the

Assessment (Return to Contents)

Pre-Activity Assessment

Voting: Ask a true/false question and have students vote by holding thumbs up for true and thumbs down
for false. Count the votes, and write the totals on the board. Give the right answer.

• Does a robotic arm have more or less degrees of freedom than a human arm? (Answer: Less.
Typical robotic arms have 5 to 6 degrees of freedom, whereas human arms have over 26 degrees
of freedom.)
• How many degrees of freedom does a door hinge have? (Answer: It is analogous to our elbow or
knee joints and has only 1 degree of freedom.)

Activity Embedded Assessment

Discussion Question: Solicit, integrate and summarize student responses.

• From the role of playing the Eyes and Controller, which one is from a machine's point of view
and which is from a programmer's point of view? (Answer: The Eyes is from a programmer's
point of view. They must take the information from the sensors, their eyes, and think of an
effective method to communicate and control how the robotic arm moves. Conversely, the
Controller is from the machine's point of view. They cannot see what is going on and can only
take directions from the programmer.)

Post-Activity Assessment

Communicating Directions: Have student pairs write down the directions from their strategy that they
used to get the "eyes" to talk to the "controller." The steps should be in a logical sequential order and
easily understandable enough for another group to follow their directions. Have the pairs read through
their directions exactly as they have written them. Next, each pair trade directions with another team and
physically try out someone else's directions. Do they find any mistakes or vague steps? Can they complete
the task from what is written down? (You can also take one or two of the sets of directions as examples
and do in front of the class. Make sure the students do exactly what they have written down. Often - Free resources for K-12 4/6

students skip steps when writing down directions and the desired action cannot be completed. This is
good for stressing the importance of precise procedures in engineering and science experimentation.)

Question/Answer: Ask the students and discuss as a class:

• What three engineering professions will come together to create a robotic arm? (Answer:
Electrical, mechanical, and computer science engineers.)
• What role will each play? (Answer: Electrical - will select the electrical components, like motors,
and circuitry of the arm; mechanical - will design the shape and structure of the arm, select the
number of degrees of freedom, and decide what material to build the arm from; and computer
science - creates a code to use the electronics to control the mechanics of the arm.)

Discussion Question: Solicit, integrate and summarize student responses.

• Why do you think that engineers would design a robotic arm with only 5 or 6 degrees of freedom
when a human arm has over 26? (Answer: There is an engineering saying that explains this: "Less
parts, less problems." If the arm can perform the same tasks with only 5 or 6 degrees of freedom,
why complicate the design? This will result in a simpler design, which will be easier to program
and control. Just imagine if the Controller had 26 commands to remember compared to 5. It
would be a most difficult challenge to perform a simple task.)

Activity Extensions (Return to Contents)

The Robot Arm Game: the following website allows students to control a virtual robot arm from their
web browser:

Activity Scaling

For more advanced students or to simply make the activity more challenging:

• Have the Controller stand behind the Eyes. Only allow the Eyes to communicate each time to the
Controller only after turning around and facing the Controller. This will add a delay in
communications and will force the Eyes to be more accurate and precise in their commands. The
Eyes must rely on a photographic memory to issue directional commands.
• Do not decide which students will be the Controller and Eyes until seconds before the team is
ready to go. This way, both students must be proficient as the Controller and Eyes.

References (Return to Contents)


Chris Yakacki, Geoffrey Hill, Daria Kotys-Schwartz, Malinda Schaefer Zarske, Janet Yowell


© 2004 by Regents of the University of Colorado. - Free resources for K-12 5/6

The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under a grant from the Fund for the
Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education and National Science
Foundation GK-12 grant no. 0226322. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies
of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement
by the federal government.

Supporting Program (Return to Contents)

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado at Boulder

Last Modified: February 17, 2011 - Free resources for K-12 6/6