March 5, 2013

Engineering Outreach Program Builds Robots

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Giving young children hands-on engineering experience will get them hooked for life. Ben Finio, a post doctorate in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and Prof. Robert Shepherd, mechanical and aerospace engineering, live by that philosophy. In the hopes of creating an early love for technology and engineering in children, Finio and Shepherd, in collaboration with Prof. Hod Lipson, mechanical and aerospace engineering, hold workshops at the Ithaca Generator, where children can become involved in fun and engaging activities relating to STEM fields. Activities vary, but include practical experiments involving 3D printing, electricity and most recently, soft robots, which were initially developed at Harvard University.

Upon arriving, the children, aged between five and 12 years old, and their parents listen to a quick presentation by Finio, who briefly explains what they will be making. Finio also shows video demonstrations of what the final products should look like and how they should behave. The children, with the assistance of their parents as well as Finio and Shepherd, then begin their task of creating soft robots. As opposed to the rigid, metallic form of typical robots, soft robots are flexible, elastic and more easily maneuverable.

To make a soft robot, the kids combined a silicon rubber mix, a gel-like substance “often used in the film industry to make fake body parts or masks,” Finio said. They then pour the mix into a mold of their choice. According to Finio, there are several kinds of molds, which are 3D printed, each of which creates a soft robot with a different function. Some molds are designed to create moving robots, while others are designed to create robots which latch onto objects by wrapping around them.

Once the molds are filled with the rubber mixture, they are placed in an oven for ten minutes. The heat from the oven solidifies the rubber by cross linking bonds within the material, this connects the polymer chains that make up the rubber. Heating the mixture, however, is only half of the process, because the end goal is to insert a tube connected to an air bulb into the air ducts within the robot allowing the robot to be inflated. At this point, the air ducts are unsealed, said Finio.

To seal the air ducts in the robot, the children place their robots on a pre-made thin sheet of the rubber mix, seal the edges with more mix, and then place the sheet back in the oven until the new mix solidifies, sealing the air ducts. Finally, an air tube is inserted into the air ducts, and then the ducts can be inflated or deflated with the connected bulb. According to Finio, the ultimate function of the soft robots, which is either to move or wrap around an object, is caused by the inflation and deflation of the sealed air ducts within the robots.

Shepherd and Finio hope that activities of this kind will make up for the lack of engineering activities provided for children during a typical school day.

It is a “physically engaging, yet simple way of making robotic systems,” Shepherd said.

Finio added that “by middle school, most girls will lose interest in STEM fields.” Finio and Shepherd hope that by providing engaging engineering experience early on, young girls will be more motivated to study STEM fields later in life. About half of the children at the workshop were girls, who seemed to be just as fascinated by the experiment as the boys.

Ultimately, Finio and Shepherd  said they want this type of STEM field experience to be included in a typical school day, and not just be a weekend activity. According to Finio, since teachers are evaluated by how their students perform on standardized tests, nothing beyond standardized test material is being taught, which is a shame. He said that although standardized tests do have their benefits, it is important for children to also have experiences beyond them, such as hands-on activities in STEM fields.

Furthermore, Finio said, “children need to know that it is OK to be wrong, which is not something they learn through standardized testing.”

Original Author: Amit Blumfield