Bugs and Bots Enthrall at Ed Portal

Elementary school students sat in the front row of the common room at the Harvard Allston Education Portal yesterday evening, eagerly waiting to learn more about two things with which they are very familiar but can never get enough of: bugs and robots.

Benjamin M. Finio, a graduate student in the Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory, gave a family-friendly presentation titled “Bots that Mimic Bugs” explaining the research on bio-inspired microrobotics at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.

“It’s a chance for families, and especially kids, to learn from a young scientist,” said Robert A. Lue, director of life sciences education in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology and one of the organizers of the event. “We want to excite young minds about science as soon as possible,” Lue said.

Kids squealed with disgust and delight as the scientist showed a cockroach move across the screen. Their eyes lit up when the screen showed a giant centipede catching a bat in a black and white clip reminiscent of a horror film.

Finio explained to the families how researchers use nature as inspiration to build tiny robots that mimic insects—such as flies, cockroaches, and centipedes—that can be used to crawl and squirm into small areas. Future uses of the technology might include searching for people who have been trapped under rubble from an earthquake, Finio said.

Last night marked the first lecture in a series of planned events focusing on engaging young students with science.

Alison Brissette, one of the organizers of the event, said that most of the lectures hosted in the past had been adult-focused.

“It’s the first lecture that was kid-oriented, and I’m so glad to see how many kids came,” she said. “Clearly robotics is a hot topic.”

During another short video of a fly flapping its wings in slow motion, Finio discussed the difficulties of building a robot that is the size of a fingertip and lacks the natural balance and instinct of an insect.

“We can’t take big things and make them small because the parts are too big,” Finio said to the children. He and other researchers and engineers are still in the process of creating a small and lightweight battery that would allow the robot to lift off the ground without support.

The scientists’ latest research involves creating “squishy” robots, inspired by octopi and the muscles in an elephant’s trunk. Using products such as silicone rubber and balloons, researchers have so far been able to create robotic worms that do not break under pressure from a hammer.

“There’s a stereotype that science is for nerds, and I want to show kids that there is lots of cool stuff you can do with science—that it’s fun,” Finio said.

—Staff writer Nathalie R. Miraval can be reached at nmiraval@college.harvard.edu.

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