Biomimetics for middle schoolers

Nahant bay during a blizzard. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Nahant bay during a bliz­zard. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

A few weeks ago I got to pre­tend I was a middle schooler again and joined in on a field trip to the Marine Sci­ence Center. About ten sev­enth and eighth grade stu­dents from Buck­ingham, Browne, & Nichols School in Cam­bridge piled in a van and made their way up to Nahant on one of the rainiest, windiest days imag­in­able. The rain felt like nails pelting our faces, but I guess that’s irrel­e­vant to the story, except maybe to say that biology per­sists even in the face of inclement weather…or some­thing like that.

Anyway, we were happy to be hud­dled in the old Nike Mis­sile bunker for the dura­tion of the after­noon, because it kept us dry and warm. But it also pre­sented us with a bunch of exciting visual expe­ri­ences and some new infor­ma­tion about what it means to be a marine biol­o­gist and to do biology.

The trip was the kick-​​off ses­sion of a six-​​week edu­ca­tional out­reach pro­gram orga­nized by North­eastern grad­uate stu­dent Dan Blus­tein called Neu­ro­bots, an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary bio­engi­neering cur­riculum he designed to intro­duce stu­dents to bio­mimetic robotics.

Yep, that’s right — bio­mimetic robots. Blus­tein is a member of biology pro­fessor Joe Ayers’ lab, which studies the neu­ro­log­ical sys­tems of ani­mals like lob­sters and bees, and then develops robotic sys­tems whose mechan­ical cir­cuitry mimics the animal’s neu­ro­log­ical cir­cuitry. This allows the robots to behave more like real ani­mals capable of dealing with unfore­seen cir­cum­stances, said Blus­tein. Ani­mals have evolved to sur­vive and thrive in their envi­ron­ments, he said, so it makes sense to take some cues from nature when designing syn­thetic systems.

Blus­tein devel­oped the cur­riculum in con­junc­tion with BB&N teacher Kelley Schultheis, who holds a master’s degree from North­eastern. The duo knew from expe­ri­ence that there’s a lot to be learned from robot lob­sters, from com­puter pro­gram­ming to neuroscience.

Blustein shows a rare blue lobster to the visiting students. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Blus­tein shows a rare blue lob­ster to the vis­iting stu­dents. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

At the MSC the stu­dents learned the first step in the process: How to observe ani­mals and pro­duce an ethogram, an objec­tive record of the animal’s behavior in a variety of areas during a fixed period of time. The stu­dents watched lob­sters and snails hanging out, doing their thang. If one just sat there the whole time, the stu­dents wanted to say things like “he’s sleeping.” But Blus­tein explained that this is anthro­po­mor­phizing the sit­u­a­tion, we don’t really know if the snail is sleeping, only that it’s not moving.

(Ear­lier Blus­tein asked the group if anyone knew the def­i­n­i­tion of the word “anthro­po­mor­phize,” and one par­tic­u­larly pre­co­cious stu­dent answered rather astutely: “It’s when we attribute human emo­tions to ani­mals or inan­i­mate objects.”)

So, this part of the cur­riculum was basi­cally designed to teach the kids how to non-​​judgmentally observe an animal system. Back in Cam­bridge, they’ll use others’ obser­va­tions of lob­sters to design and build a robotic ver­sion of the arthropod, for which they’ll also create a com­puter pro­gram to con­trol. Then at the end of the course, in the big finale, they’ll race those babies to the finish line, com­peting with their new­found bio­mimetic robotics skilz.

And you can bet I’ll be there to do my own bit of observation.