Researchers at Stanford University have created a set of liquid-handling robots by combining the Lego Mindstorms robotics kit available on the market with a cheap and easy-to-find plastic syringe.
The project, reported in the journal PLoS Biology, was accomplished by Ingmar Riedel-Kruse, assistant professor of bioengineering, Lukas Gerber, a postdoctoral fellow in Riedel-Kruse's lab, with contributions from a middle school science teacher and three high school students.
Deisgned to pipette fluids from and into cuvettes and multiple-well plates, or plastic containers commonly used in laboratories, the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) robotics kit is expected to foster interest among elementary and secondary school students in the “wet” sciences, namely biology, chemistry and medicine, so called because experiments in these fields often involve fluids.
“We really want kids to learn by doing,” said Riedel-Kruse, who drew inspiration from the so-called constructionist learning theories, which advocate project-based learning where students make tangible objects, connect different ideas and areas of knowledge and thereby construct mental models to understand the world around them. “We show that with a few relatively inexpensive parts, a little training and some imagination, students can create their own liquid-handling robots and then run experiments on it -- so they learn about engineering, coding and the wet sciences at the same time.”
One of the leading constructionist learning theorists in the field was Seymour Papert, whose seminal 1980 book Mindstorms was the inspiration for the Lego Mindstorms sets, a line of plastic construction toys that are manufactured by The Lego Group, a privately held company based in Billund, Denmark.
In their PLoS Biology paper, the Stanford team offers step-by-step building plans and several fundamental experiments targeted to elementary, middle and high school students; and also experiments that students can conduct using common household consumables like food coloring, yeast or sugar. Depending on the specific design, the robot can handle liquid volumes far smaller than one microliter, a droplet about the size of a single coarse grain of salt.
The coding aspect of the robot is elementary, Riedel-Kruse was quoted as saying in a news release. A simple programming language allows students to place symbols telling the robot what to do: Start. Turn motor on. Do a loop. And so forth. The robots can be programmed and operated in different ways. “It's kind of easy. Just define a few parameters and the system works.”
Noting that “these robots can support a range of educational experiments and they provide a bridge between mechanical engineering, programming, life sciences and chemistry. They would be great as part of in-school and afterschool science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs,” Riedel-Kruse said these activities meet several important goals for promoting multidisciplinary STEM learning as outlined by the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and other U.S. national initiatives.
By integrating robotics, biology, chemistry, programming and hands-on learning in a single project, he sees cross-disciplinary instruction value.