Using Lego robots for bioengineering research and instruction

Abstract

We have developed a modular neuron and synapse library that enables nervous system simulations on Lego robots. This approach serves as a valuable tool for testing biological models and also forms the basis for an inquiry-based classroom curriculum developed in collaboration with a local science teacher. Recent research efforts within the neuroscience community have used network-based simulations to test hypotheses of nervous system function on robots. Neuron, synapse and sensor-based instruments integrated into the Lego Mindstorms NXT 2.0 system make this synthesis of engineering and neuroscience both natural and accessible to researchers without previous robotics experience. The Lego robot can be used to test hypotheses related to the biomechanical principles of locomotion, neural basis for behavior and decision-making, and the function of sensory systems. The commercially-available Lego robot kit and the associated biological framework was incorporated into a bioengineering curriculum developed and implemented at a local middle school. Students met weekly for two months to learn about biological principles of animal behavior, robotic engineering, and programming. The curriculum stressed the value of interdisciplinary investigation and teamwork in the design process as students built and programmed Lego robots in small groups. Student reviews of the curriculum were overwhelmingly positive and the curriculum has been made available online for widespread implementation. By connecting novel research with educational outreach, we present a powerful tool that fuels both biological experimentation and interdisciplinary instruction.