Broadening the pathway to STEM through soft robotics research and design


Huan Song

Bioengineering Professor Holly Golecki is the principal investigator on a recently published paper titled, "Soluble Polymer Pneumatic Networks and a Single-Pour System for Improved Accessibility and Durability of Soft Robotic Actuators" in the journal Soft Robotics. 

Soft robotics is an emerging subfield of robotics and holds tremendous potential for biomedical applications. Some examples include exoskeletons, wearable devices, and implanted pneumatic actuators to assist organ functions. It is also an engaging way to teach mechanics, robotics and healthcare devices in K-12 classrooms and beyond as evidenced in this work. 

What is particularly notable about this article is that it is co-written with high school students who sought to improve robotics education for their K-12 peers. They exemplify how innovation and research can come from all ages. 

The goal of this study is to create a method of fabricating soft robotic actuators that is durable and uses tools and materials accessible to teachers and students.

"Previously, soft actuators were often made in a two-part system. This would result in delamination (2 parts separating due to applied air pressure)," said Golecki. The novel molding method presented here uses a 3-D printed mold that suspends a soluble insert to create the pneumatic network. Using this method, an actuator's shape can be easily customized and its single part system makes it more rupture resistant under high pressure. Golecki estimates the cost per actuator to be around $2 and would decrease as production scales up. 

Wearable device to assist with throwing a clay pot
Wearable device to assist with throwing a clay pot
In addition to using traditional silicone actuators, this research team also tested gelatin candy actuators with sugar-based inserts as a food-safe and biodegradable option. The team introduced the design in two different classroom settings: a wearable mechanical assistance device that guides an art student's hand while throwing a clay pot and an independent exploration program at University High School. 

Alexander Greer, first author of this paper
Alexander Greer, first author of this paper
Another goal of the work was to introduce the high school students to engineering and the culture of research. 
The paper’s first author, Alexander Greer,  first started working with Golecki as a sophomore in high school. He said, “I have always been interested in STEM, whether taking courses in school or tinkering with robots at home. But participating in novel scientific research inspired in me a whole new appreciation for STEM fields and the tireless efforts of researchers across the world in the pursuit of knowledge.” Greer is now an undergraduate student and researcher at MIT. 

Author Troy Barnes is now studying biomedical engineering at Drexel University. Barnes said, “going into the soft robotics club, I knew little to nothing about bioengineering. Then, Dr.Golecki opened my eyes to a new world of innovation surrounding biocompatible invention.” 

Students visiting NASA Langley
Students visiting NASA Langley
The students went on the present preliminary work from this project at the Materials Research Society Meeting in Boston, MA and at an Engineering Design Session at NASA Langley. Barnes reflected on the team’s NASA experience, “it made me think, ‘if I am doing this now, then where will I be 10 years from now.’ That's what I love about innovation. You are never too young to start.” 

“Given time and space, young students can innovate and it's our job as educators to provide these opportunities for students to realize their potential,” Golecki said. 

This project set the foundational protocols to fabricate actuators that are more durable, less prone to delamination and accessible to multiple materials - which makes them more attractive for biomedical applications. "We now have teams of undergraduates working to develop these protocols further to build biocompatible systems for healthcare applications,” she said. This spring, bioengineering seniors Ana Rivero Valles, Craig Soares, Hannah Thompson and Justin Tiao explored extracellular matrix (ECM) based soft robotic actuators as a part of their senior design project. 

Soft robotics will also be the focus for ARISE students who work with Golecki as a part of the "GIANT building confidence and increasing engagement through undergraduate research" project. Adia Radecka, a participating engineering student said, “as a first-generation female engineering student, working with Dr. Golecki has been inspiring. She is a great example of a successful first-generation female engineer and as such has given me the confidence to pursue my passion for STEM.”

One research topic is to expand upon wearable devices to transfer skills that are difficult to verbalize through a tactile format. Another topic would expand the testing of biodegradable actuators in a fluid environment. “Through our soft robotics research, I have gained some experience with AutoCAD and Aurdino. On top of that I have learned how to 3-D print molds and develop soft robotics,” said Radecka. “Now with some basic knowledge of soft robotics, we will move on to do a K-12 soft robotics outreach program with a neighboring school. We will also be continuing to work on last year's senior design project.”

Golecki currently also serves on the IDEA Institute Anti-RacismTaskforce. She said, "If we can provide opportunities for all students to engage in research at the freshmen and sophomore levels and then go on to continue that engagement at larger scales, they will get the full experience of the community of research by attending conferences, publishing papers and realize the potential of their work. Now is the time for us to build these educational experiences."