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Engineering students learn mechanics, robotics, and controls by making space rovers

Antonio Forte, Lecturer in Engineering, introduces a new Engineering module.

King’s College London provides a series of hands-on design modules as part of the new Engineering curriculum. These modules encourage creativity and “learning by making” and are supported by the brand-new Engineering Quads and Makerspaces. 

Among these, the 2nd year Design: Empowerment module aims to equip students with cross-disciplinary knowledge of mechanical principles, sustainable manufacturing and robotics fundamentals. This is achieved through frontal lectures and supervised workshops. The students are then able to apply the skills and knowledge gained during contact hours to design and build space rovers from scratch. These rovers must respect many engineering constraints and perform robotic tasks during the exam, known as Demo Day. The event serves as a platform for student teams to showcase their creations and compete in practical robotics challenges to earn marks.

By giving the students an array of technical tools, which span from modelling to manufacturing techniques, we train them to think critically and apply the acquired knowledge to practical scenarios. By doing so, students learn the difference between modelling and reality. The Mars Rovers serve as a platform to test how theory translates into practice, and how to approach unforeseen challenges that might not show up when doing calculations on a paper.”– Dr Antonio Forte, Lecturer in Engineering and Module Lead of Design: Empowerment

The challenges that the teams’ rovers must overcome on Demo Day are multiple and variegated, including navigating unstructured terrains, launching probes to inaccessible areas, collecting samples with robotic grippers, and safely landing into craters. Throughout the term, students attend 3-hour morning lectures on specialised topics, followed by supervised afternoon practical sessions for additional 3 hours.

The module is organised in milestones, requiring students to demonstrate weekly progress on their rovers based on specific requirements for a cash prize. The prize consists of makerspace coins that they can trade for makerspace consumables such as wood or acrylic sheets for the laser cutter, minutes of 3D printing and more. This motivates the teams to progress, while reducing waste and adopting a sustainable approach to design and manufacturing.


The prototypes developed by the students were able to successfully undertake complex robotic tasks during the Demo Day. Each member of a team was able to contribute to the group project, namely the robotic rover. This collaboration was made possible by specialised skills they acquired during a preliminary stage, an individual project held during the first three weeks of term. In this phase, students learn principles of bio-inspired design and apply them to model a specific component of the rover, such as the gripper, which they could use later in the group project.

Throughout this module, we are encouraging our students to demonstrate their engineering skills and knowledge through non-traditional routes. In the individual project, we did this by teaching them bio-inspiration theories and methods, such as BioTRIZ. We guided them in the design component of a Mars rover, integrating both individual and group projects. We then assessed them using the “unessay” approach, enabling students to leverage their creative, artistic sides through the creation of videos, posters, Buzzfeed listicles or portfolios. One student even made a comic strip!”– Dr Michael Berthaume, Reader in Engineering and Individual Project Lead of Design: Empowerment

By encouraging students to use their knowledge in practical settings, they learn how the real world might pose challenges requiring ad-hoc solutions and navigating tight time constraints. This approach trains students for real-life work environments, transitioning the skills learnt in class to specific issues in the community. Executive decisions need to be taken as part of a team, and success is often the result of synergistic and coordinated efforts among team members.

The hands-on experience provided by the module was truly invaluable. I found myself surprised by the challenges we were pushed to tackle, and it was incredibly rewarding to see what we, as students, could achieve with the guidance of dedicated academics.”– Lily Gregory, 2nd year Engineering student
The academics are supportive throughout the module, giving excellent advice and unique solutions to improve the rovers that you design and build, but most importantly, you can see their passion and love for the subject as well.– Lewis Matthews, 2nd year Engineering student
Design: Empowerment has been the most important module I've taken so far in my degree. Discussing ideas and developing a Mars rover with fellow students gave us a taste of what working as an engineer would look like, which was exciting!”– Amanda Rocca, 2nd year Engineering student

In this story

Antonio Forte

Antonio Forte

Lecturer in Engineering

Michael Berthaume

Michael Berthaume

Reader in Engineering

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