DIY Lego Robot Brings Lab Automation to Students

Stanford researchers design Lego robot kit so students can automate their chemistry experiments

2 min read
DIY Lego Robot Brings Lab Automation to Students
Photo: Lukas Gerber and Ingmar Riedel-Kruse

In an attempt to get robotics-minded kids more interested in life sciences—and vice versa—Stanford researchers have designed DIY robot kits for automating chemistry experiments. Using a Lego Mindstorms EV3 set and some plastic syringes, students can build robots that measure and transfer liquids, automating their their classroom laboratory assignments. Instructions for building the robot were published Tuesday in the journal PloS Biology.

“What’s key for me is that we merge robotics education—which is loved by kids and teachers—and life sciences education,” says Ingmar Riedel-Kruse, a bioengineer at Stanford who led the project. “Learning should be playful. And maybe it’s more fun to engage in chemistry or biology experiments if you do it with a playful robot.”

Riedel-Kruse and his team built the wet-lab bots using inexpensive syringes and a Lego Mindstorms EV3—a US $390 Lego set that includes a small programmable computer and several motors, sensors, and connecting cables. The team configured the robot so that it can move a syringe from one test tube to the next, drawing up liquid from one and depositing it into another. The robots can be programmed to pipette measured amounts of liquid down to the microliter scale. 

The team tested the robots on groups of elementary, middle, and high school students. The youngest group, a Girl Scout troop with kids ages 10-11, were able to build the simple versions of the wet lab bots with guidance from teachers. High school students built more complex designs, including a robot with a stationary syringe and a moving well plate—a plastic plate with multiple small wells for holding liquids that is a staple in life science laboratories.

The robots can be programmed to perform basic science experiments, such as mixing colored liquids, comparing pH levels of liquids, measuring color intensities of liquids or showing how liquids of different salt densities can be layered rather than mixed. 

Riedel-Kruse says he hopes to get the robot kits into science classrooms. The National Science Foundation last year awarded him and his collaborators nearly $900,000 to develop teaching material and distribute the kits to schools over the next three years. With help from a non-profit tech education group called Learningtech.org, the team will start with an after-school program involving about ten middle and high school teachers in the San Francisco Bay area. Riedel-Kruse hopes the project will expand beyond California. 

The goal is to expose kids to both life sciences and robotics at the same time in the hope that they will carry both into their careers“Certain students have an aptitude for programming and others for life sciences,” and this is a way to bridge these interests, says Riedel-Kruse. 

The Mindstorms concept originated with a 1980 book by MIT professor Seymour Papert. In the book, called Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas, Papert proposed that computers could enhance learning. In that spirit, members of the MIT Media Lab developed programmable Lego sets and The LEGO Group later commercialized them

The first Lego Mindstorms construction kit launched in 1998. LEGO revealed the most recent version—the EV3—in 2013. With that redesign, the company aimed to make the set “more hackable.” Indeed, some tinkerers have managed to bypass the controller that comes with the set, replacing it with their own.

With their liquid-handling Lego robots, Riedel-Kruse and his team have perhaps carried on Papert’s vision into the wet sciences: enabling students to learn chemistry and biology through building and programming. 

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Restoring Hearing With Beams of Light

Gene therapy and optoelectronics could radically upgrade hearing for millions of people

13 min read
A computer graphic shows a gray structure that’s curled like a snail’s shell. A big purple line runs through it. Many clusters of smaller red lines are scattered throughout the curled structure.

Human hearing depends on the cochlea, a snail-shaped structure in the inner ear. A new kind of cochlear implant for people with disabling hearing loss would use beams of light to stimulate the cochlear nerve.

Lakshay Khurana and Daniel Keppeler
Blue

There’s a popular misconception that cochlear implants restore natural hearing. In fact, these marvels of engineering give people a new kind of “electric hearing” that they must learn how to use.

Natural hearing results from vibrations hitting tiny structures called hair cells within the cochlea in the inner ear. A cochlear implant bypasses the damaged or dysfunctional parts of the ear and uses electrodes to directly stimulate the cochlear nerve, which sends signals to the brain. When my hearing-impaired patients have their cochlear implants turned on for the first time, they often report that voices sound flat and robotic and that background noises blur together and drown out voices. Although users can have many sessions with technicians to “tune” and adjust their implants’ settings to make sounds more pleasant and helpful, there’s a limit to what can be achieved with today’s technology.

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