Program Details

In WaterBotics, teams of middle and high school students engage in problem-based learning as they collaborate to design, build, test, and redesign underwater robots made of LEGO® components, motors, propellers, and other materials. The robots are developed through an iterative engineering design process. Student teams complete a series of design challenges or “missions” that increase in complexity and require more sophisticated solutions. Ultimately, students produce a fully functional underwater robot capable of maneuvering in a three foot deep pool. Students also learn computer programming as they design and program custom controllers for their robots using the NXT and LEGO® MINDSTORMS® software.


Four features distinguish WaterBotics from other robotics programs for K-12 students:

  • The ability of teams to do rapid prototyping due to the ease of assembly and disassembly of the LEGO® components, making is possible to quickly design-build-test-redesign;

  • The novel missions associated with the underwater environment that present students with intriguing but unfamiliar problems to solve and that require team collaboration;

  • The integral and explicit focus on science, engineering, IT learning, and 21st Century skills for which learning is scaffolded through mastery of increasingly complex missions; and

  • The use of a culminating showcase event in which students demonstrate their robots, describe their design goals, list the achievements they successfully completed, identify areas for improvement, and receive supportive feedback and encouragement from their peers.


More information may be found below or by downloading the paper WaterBotics: A Novel Engineering Design Curriculum for Formal and Informal Educational Settings. 

Real World Context

Designing and building a robot to explore an underwater environment is a highly interdisciplinary undertaking, encompassing science, engineering, and information technology fields of study. Real world applications of underwater, remotely-operated vehicles are numerous and include: exploration and recovery of submerged shipwrecks; inspection and repair of submerged pipelines and structures; underwater mine detection; and oceanographic and environmental monitoring, among many others.

The WaterBotics curriculum is designed as a series of four missions that gradually increase in difficulty and ultimately lead to a final robot design. Each of the missions is cast as a real-world application of underwater robots. For example, in the first mission students are challenged to create a robot to go back and forth across the surface of the pool. The motivating context is to build a prototype of a “rescue robot” that can go out to sea, reach a drowning person, and pull him or her back to shore. In subsequent missions students improve their robot design to operate in two dimensions (e.g. clean up a surface oil spill), maneuver underwater (e.g. detonate an underwater mine), and eventually pick up objects from the bottom of the pool and deposit them elsewhere (e.g. salvage an underwater shipwreck.) To successfully complete the final mission, students must apply what they have learned about the science and engineering concepts previously listed and through frequent testing, refine their robots to optimize functionality and maneuverability.

Scaffolded Learning

Designing, building and controlling a robot to function underwater presents a level of complexity that is not found in many land-based robotics programs. In order to create robots that will dive or ascend in the water, stay upright, and move in three dimensions instead of two, students must understand scientific concepts such as buoyancy, stability, and drag. The additional challenges of working underwater can level the playing field for mixed groups of learners, some of whom may have achieved a higher level of skill through other robotics programs.

To ensure that students do not become daunted by building a complex robot right from the start, the curriculum is divided into a series of four “bite-sized” missions that gradually lead to the production of a fully functional robot. In each mission, students plan, design, build, test and iteratively improve a robot that possesses a specific subset of the capabilities of the final robot, always building on their knowledge and experience gained from the prior missions.

The curriculum’s approach to embedding science lessons within each design mission is an intentional and distinctive feature of the curriculum design. The goal is to increase student learning of common physical science concepts. In addition to experiencing hands-on learning of science, engineering, and programming concepts, students engage in virtual simulations, view online videos, and access other web-based instructional resources to help them master these topics.

Iterative Design using LEGO® materials

As students address the challenge in each mission they gain first-hand experience with the Engineering Design Process in which they build and test subsystems as part of a more complex undertaking. LEGO® materials are used as the building blocks of the robots. Students' familiarity with LEGOs’® and their ease of use makes WaterBotics accessible, enjoyable and intuitive for all students regardless of background. As a result, students quickly construct prototypes, test them, make appropriate changes, and test them again (rapid prototyping). Being able to quickly progress from an idea to a working prototype is a critical learning objective of the WaterBotics curriculum, a key aspect of the concept of iterative design. Students can be creative and innovative using any number and type of LEGO® pieces, their robots designs only limited by their imaginations. 

Students can also use the LEGO® MINDSTORMS® NXT and NXT-G software to design, build and program custom controllers to direct the movement and actions of their robot. Programs are easily constructed using this simple but powerful icon-based programming language. Even beginner programmers can learn and master coding by clicking and dragging symbols and typing in values rather than entering lines of text-based code.


Driven by Collaboration

WaterBotics is unique. Its driving force is building a prototype to complete a relevant, student-friendly mission rather than competing to win a competition. As a result, it has wide appeal across diverse youth audiences including those with little or no prior robotics experience. Student recognition and differentiated instruction is encouraged through the use of additional mission challenges and showcase events.

Each mission ends with a friendly showcase event to focus students on a concrete milestone, interest them in what their classmates are doing and add an element of excitement to the project. To provide students flexibility in their robot designs and optimizations, they are encouraged to work towards specific achievements within each mission. These are specific goals for their robots to accomplish within the context of the mission. For example, one achievement is to rescue a person (represented by a ping pong ball) within 10 seconds; another is to rescue 10 or more people in one trip. Each mission has a number of achievements that students may attempt, but only one must be accomplished for the mission to be considered a success. The achievements also serve to provide additional challenges for teams that may work more quickly than others. 


Flexible Implementation

WaterBotics is flexible. It has been successfully implemented using multiple formats, including intensive, one-week summer camp experiences or as a sequence of science or technology classes in middle and high school (one or more classes per week). The modular design allows educators to implement the program according to their own schedules and needs. National Science Foundation-funded research has shown WaterBotics to be engaging for both girls and boys and suitable for students ranging from special education to gifted and talented.

There are two ways to implement the WaterBotics project—a programming track and a non-programming track. The programming track makes use of the MINDSTORMS® NXT module, sensors, and software, while the non-programming track relies instead on the Power Functions infrared (IR) remote controllers. The design challenges are exactly the same in each track. The only difference is whether students design and program their own controllers to manipulate their robot or whether they use an IR controller to manipulate it.

The length of time needed to successfully implement the curriculum varies with the age and abilities of the participating youth and which track is used. The programming track was designed for girls and boys from Grades 7-12 (ages 12-18) and takes approximately 20 - 26 hours to implement. The non-programming track may be used with younger students or for programs that require less time. Implementation time for the non-programming track is approximately 14 - 18 hours.

Detailed Curriculum Guide

The curriculum guide includes a comprehensive and diverse collection of educational materials in a variety of formats. Materials include planning guides for program scheduling, equipment needs, location and workspace arrangements, and appropriate staffing needs and training. Equipment and technology setup and installation guides are provided using numerous illustrations. Additionally, each mission includes detailed activity/lesson plans. Explicitly illustrated student handouts accompany the science and programming lessons so that students may either follow along or learn on their own, depending on student needs and instructor preference. In addition to the curriculum, the WaterBotics website contains numerous support materials that include screencasts of programming lessons, videos demonstrating physical science concepts, sample computer programs, interactive science simulations, and student assessments. A curriculum sample is available for viewing.