Science of Innovation: self-driving cars

Imagine glancing over to the next car during your commute and seeing the driver with a coffee in hand AND a magazine! Okay—some of you have already witnessed such stupidity—but in the near future none of us will give it a second thought. Instead we’ll all be figuring out how to spend that time because innovative guidance systems built into our cars will “drive” us to our destinations. Preview the future in this installment of the “Science of Innovation” video series from the collaborative team of NBC Learn, USPTO, NSF, and NSTA.

Now imagine the creative brainstorming that must have gone into developing such guidance systems. “Let’s build a system that…!” and “You think we can make the car do what???” Perhaps post the following rules from the USPTO to foster creative brainstorming sessions with your students:
• Accept all ideas
• Encourage that no idea is a bad idea
• Think of as many ideas as possible
• Build on one another’s ideas
• Use wild and crazy ideas
• Keep looking for ideas

Use any one of the videos as a springboard for creative brainstorming and innovative thought. They’re available cost-free on,, and Use the link below to download the lesson plans in a format you can edit to customize for your situation. Then let us know how they work for you!

–Judy Elgin Jensen


SOI: Self-Driving Cars highlights Sebastian Thrun, a computer scientist supported by NSF and a Google fellow at Stanford University, who has focused his research on designing a car that uses artificial intelligence, or AI, to “drive” the car.

Lesson plans

Two versions of the lesson plans help students build background and develop safe procedures that control variables and enable them to make accurate measurements or to make good working models of the devices they are investigating. Both include strategies to support students in their own quest for answers and strategies for a more focused approach that helps all students participate in hands-on inquiry.

SOI: Self-Driving Cars, A Science Perspective describes how students might model how a typical laser range finder (LIDAR) or radar device determines the distance between it and another object.


SOI: Self-Driving Cars, An Engineering Perspective models how students might test how a simple kit robot with built-in sensors could navigate a maze.

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