Encouraging children and young adults to think about a career in engineering often seems like an uphill struggle. However, some areas of engineering can prove more appealing than others, with many taking an interest before they have even left school.

Initiatives such as Code Club, Fire Tech Camp and Camp Invention are introducing children as young as five to the basics of programming and software engineering. With cheap gadgets like the Raspberry Pi and BBC Microbit easily available, coupled with the simplicity of Scratch programming, school children are more computer literate than ever before.

Using this technology to get young people interested in the ‘wet’ sciences such as biology, chemistry and medicine, however, is something that has evaded teachers for years. Until now.

When coding, engineering and science come together

A team of bioengineers at Stanford University have developed a robotics project using ‘off the shelf’ kits, aimed at getting students excited about science. With just a Lego kit and some simple lab equipment, students can create their own liquid-handling robots. Modified with cheap additions like pipettes and syringes, the robotic systems can move precise and tiny amounts of liquids between flasks or test-tubes. The team believe the hand-built robots even come close to matching the performance of the costly automated systems found in major labs and universities.

Ingmar Riedel-Kruse, assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford, led the team working on the project. “We really want kids to learn by doing,” he said. “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.”

The robots designed by the team can handle liquid volumes of far smaller than one microliter. That is a droplet roughly the size of a single grain of salt. Riedel-Kruse believes that given the accuracy of the robots, they could even be useful in smaller labs or professional environments, saving potentially thousands of dollars.

Learning through discovery

The inspiration behind the project comes from the idea of project-based ‘discovery’ learning. This is a theory that sees students creating tangible objects to connect different ideas and areas of knowledge. By doing so, theory suggests they build a clearer picture of the world around them.

The team have put together step-by-step building plans for the robots, as well as compiling a collection of experiments for both primary and secondary students. With varying difficulty based on age, these experiments use common household items such as food colouring, yeast and sugar.

The coding for the robot itself is apparently just as easy. A simple programming language allows students to use symbols to instruct the robots. They can then be programmed and operated in different ways. In some experiments, students are required to push buttons to activate motors, while in others, all actions can be preprogrammed to conduct experiments autonomously.

“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 a part of in-school and afterschool STEM programmes,” said Riedel-Kruse.

The team originally designed the activities with summer school students and their teacher, before testing them out in schools. The project is now ready to share with the wider open-access community to expand on the plans, capabilities and experiments for bots to perform.

Watch the DIY robots in action here.

Image: “The experiment” by clement127 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.