Post-pandemic, Small Robotic Bugs Engage Students in Physics


Hexbug Nanos is used in an online lab course to teach undergraduate physics research skills. Credit: Kristopher Vargas, Pomona College

Important points:

  • The use of small robotic bug toys has proven successful to teach particle behavior to undergraduate students.
  • The experimental approach was performed entirely online for an undergraduate physics lab course.
  • The researchers found that students learned more effectively this way.

While the shift to full online learning has been extremely challenging amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the consequences have been far from. The insights gained have helped many schools improve their virtual learning options, particularly colleges and universities.

In a new study, researchers at Pomona College in California developed an online physics lab course for students using Hexbug Nanos — small robotic bug “toys” — to engage students in scientific research from the comfort of their own home.

Hexbug Nanos look like brightly colored bugs with 12 flexible legs that move fast semi-randomly. This makes collections of hexbugs ideal models for exploring particle behavior that is difficult for students to visualize. For the internship, the students used the hexbugs sent by post, a smartphone and common household items.

In the course, the students first completed a short experiment to investigate the ideal gas law. They used a rectangular cardboard box divided by a movable wall made of cardboard and bamboo skewers that slid the length of the box. A different number of hexbugs were placed on either side of the moving wall to model two gases at different pressures. The students used their smartphones to record the “gas molecules” bouncing against the moving wall. Video tracking software was used to obtain the wall’s position as a function of time as it moved until the pressure in the two chambers equalized.

Students then spent a semester proposing research projects of their choice and designing experiments using hexbugs to explore concepts in statistical mechanics and electrical conduction. They were also required to write formal, peer-reviewed academic papers about their work that modeled the professional publishing process as closely as possible.

“We found that the pandemic-inspired reliance on simple, home-built experiments, while less emphasis was placed on the use of sophisticated equipment, allowed students to more effectively address laboratory learning objectives such as designing, implementing, and troubleshooting an experimental device to achieve,” he said, co-author of the study Janice Hudgings.

Information provided by the American Institute of Physics.