Phys/CSci 135: Robotics exploration studio
Home Syllabus Assignments Samples

Instructor Dr. Carl Burch
Telephone:450-1377 (office); 548-0036 (home)
Office:MCRey 310
Office hours:  MF 1:10–2, W 3:10–4, R 9:10–10
drop-ins, appointments always welcome
Assistant Brett Geren

The main purpose of this course is to introduce students to the scientific method in the context of building and programming robots. Students will learn science by exploration in a studio format; there will be no traditional lectures.

A student who successfully completes this course will:

  • Learn basic programming concepts including variables, loops, conditionals, blocks, and subroutines.
  • Learn object-oriented programming concepts such as classes, objects, and subtypes.
  • Learn the physics of translational motion, rotational motion, and forces as applied to the study of robotics.
  • Learn basic engineering concepts such as gear ratios, stability, and building a robust vehicle.
  • Learn how to program a robot to interact with the environment via light, sonar, rotation, and touch sensors.
  • Learn how to identify and fix problems on a robot that is not behaving as desired.
  • Be able to work productively as part of a team.
  • Plan, complete, and exhibit a creative design project.
  • Demonstrate the ability to write coherent laboratory reports.
  • Discuss the difference between robots in literature/media and reality.
  • Be able to analyze and understand different viewpoints about artificial intelligence.
Web page

Introduction to Robotics with Lego Mindstorms NXT (Lab Manual) by Gabriel J. Ferrer, 2009.

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. ISBN: 0553294385, published by Bantam Books; Reprint edition (July 1994)

You must provide your own USB flash memory drive or USB portable hard drive.

Lego kits

You will have access to many different Lego kits and parts. The main kit is the Lego Mindstorms NXT Robotics Invention System. It contains a programmable Lego brick. The kit also contains many specialty parts such as sensors and motors. Each team will have access to a full kit during class time. If a part is damaged or lost or not returned, the student responsible will be charged an amount equal to the replacement cost. Students may also make an appointment to use their kits in the lab outside of class time.


You will work primarily in groups of two. The teams will be assigned by the instructor for each exercise. You may select your partner for the final design project. Each student will be responsible for separately recording data during the labs and separately writing lab reports.

Because teamwork is vital to this class, attendance at each class is mandatory. Each unexcused absence will lower the final course grade by one letter. Following the policy in the Hendrix Course Catalog, any student who has three or more unexcused absences in a three-week period will be dropped from the course.

Absence will only be excused in the case of family emergency or illness that has been verified by a visit to the school nurse, or for an approved Hendrix activity that is documented in writing by the sponsor and handed to me one week ahead of time.


The points will be distributed as follows.

Essays (four, 60 points each) 240 pts
Lab reports (nine, 40 points each) 360 pts
Final project 400 pts
TOTAL1,000 pts

(Note: Though there will be no final exam, the final exam period will be used for presenting final projects.)

A final total of at least 900 points earns an A, 800 a B, 700 a C, 600 a D. Below 600 points is failing.

For written work (essays and lab reports), a good paper will earn 95% of the points available. The full 100% is reserved for submissions that are exceptional in some way.


There will be four short essays assigned based on reading assignments. Due dates and details on grading criteria will be discussed before each assignment. All essays should be typed. Do not use any contractions when writing your essays. Be sure that there are no spelling errors or egregious grammatical mistakes.

In each essay, you will be asked to take a position and defend it. To that end, you should write in such a way as to be persuasive to a reasonably skeptical reader. There should be some real depth to the argument; opposing viewpoints should be considered and addressed in a mature and insightful manner.

Lab reports

A written lab report will be due one day after the completion of each chapter. The lab report will be prepared by each student (not one per team). The top of the lab report should contain the following information:

  • your name
  • your partner's name, clearly labeled as such
  • the project name

The body of the lab report should follow the instructions given at the end of the corresponding chapter. Every lab report will include the following:

  • an introduction, in which the activities of the chapter are summarized
  • each question from the textbook, along with its answer
  • a conclusion containing:
    • a summary of what you learned
    • any unanswered questions you still have
    • any other elements of the lab that are worthy of mention
  • an appendix containing listings of the computer programs you wrote, as indicated by the textbook chapter.

The lab report should be word-processed and any graphs or tables should be computer generated. You are free to choose an appropriate font and report style, as long as it is professional and easy to read. The lab report will be graded for spelling, grammar, organization, and scientific content. Do not use contractions. There is no page minimum or maximum.

To receive a high grade on the lab report, all required components must be included. Furthermore, there must be some depth to your analysis, both in answers to the questions and in the conclusion.

Final project

The final part of this class will be a student-selected design project. Students will select a partner for the duration of the project. Each team will design, build, and program a robot. The robot should be able to accomplish a complex task and should be aesthetically pleasing. More details will be given in class on project selection criteria. The final project will be graded based on the project exhibition, journal documentation, and a final report.

Late policy

All assignments are due at the start of class. Late assignments lose one letter grade for every 24 hour period that they are submitted after the deadline. Weekends are not included in this computation. So if an assignment is due at 5pm Friday and it is submitted before 5pm Monday, it will be one day late. There will be no exceptions to this policy, although emergencies will be handled on a case-by-case basis.