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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.

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