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Students enrolled in the First Year Seminar “Robotics with Lego” do have fun, but the course is hardly child’s play.

The students learn the process of basic computer software design and simple mechanical design and they use computers to read sensor values and control actuators _ equipment that produces movement after receiving a signal. They also hone their programming skills and improve their communication skills through reports and class presentations. The students work on all of these skills as they build small Lego robots, sometimes for friendly competitions.

“I like to think they are having fun,” says Henry Fuchs, Federico Gil Distinguished Professor of Computer Science and an adjunct professor of biomedical engineering.

Fuchs came up with the idea for the course more than 10 years ago when his family visited the original Legoland in Billund, near the company’s headquarters in Denmark, and he and his children saw early Lego Mindstorms Robotics Systems in action for the first time. Upon his return to UNC, he suggested to his colleagues that the way to get students interested in programming was to have them each build their own robots.

“What was really delightful to me was my colleagues didn’t just laugh at me,” Fuchs says. Rather than laugh, Fuchs and his colleagues created the First Year Seminar and they take turns teaching it. It’s Fuchs’ turn right now.

The students learn to design, build and program robots to solve problems, which become progressively more complex through the semester. On the first day, the students build a robot that can move in a simple pattern. Later, they create robots that run through race courses and mazes. By the middle of the semester, they build remote-controlled robots that compete in a simple soccer tournament. One will be held at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday (Oct. 10) in the lobby of J. Carlyle Sitterson Hall.

UNC currently uses the Lego Mindstorms Robotics Systems for the robot materials and the C programming language instead of the simpler software that comes with Lego kits.

“The course is a lot of fun to teach,” Fuchs says. “So many students, although they have grown up with computers, initially don’t react very positively to programming.”

Fuchs’ goal is to change that and show the students the joy he finds in programming.

“Programming allows you to take your ideas and make them real,” he says. “It brings your ideas to life.”

Published October 8, 2012.