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A young student learns how to make a soft robot using the Soft Robotics Toolkit.

The education system in India relies heavily on traditional ways of teaching. However, evidence suggests that active, exploratory learning rather than traditional knowledge–sharing has a more constructive impact on academic performance, creating more motivation and ongoing interest in the subject as it puts the student in direct contact with the learning materials. The Soft Robotic Toolkit, part of the Mittal Institute’s Multidisciplinary Approach to Innovative Social Enterprises supported by Tata Trusts, uses active, hands-on pedagogy to provide cutting edge, high-quality STEM learning.

The Soft Robotics Toolkit aims to lower the barrier of entry for students to participate in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) by developing a line of soft robotic activities and making them available to young students. Inside each kit are the parts and instructions to create a soft robot, teaching students everything from the creation of silicone materials to the assembly of all pieces. 

After conducting several successful workshops in January this year, the Toolkit team is back with a series of virtual workshops. The team is piloting its workshop in a total of six Indian schools — four private and two public schools — in Delhi, Pune (Maharashtra), and Gaya (Bihar). We spoke to two members of the project team, Alex Beaudette and Sapna Shah, to learn more about the program and its first virtual pilot. 

What has been the greatest challenge to performing your research during the COVID-19 pandemic? Have you had to alter your approach to the project?

Against the background of the ongoing pandemic and the implications it poses toward the future of classroom education, the project has redirected its activities to understand the impact of teaching the program in a remote environment. Schools across India have switched to virtual classrooms, and it’s no longer possible to conduct in-person workshops. This has specifically impacted the access to materials required for the workshop, because students no longer have access to the tinkering labs. While the toolkits include cardboard and bioplastics that are to be used to make soft grippers, the focus has shifted to adapting to a digital medium and engendering student autonomy.

We have also redesigned our modules to adapt to the digital medium, such as Google Classroom, and each module comes with a video preview. Additionally, there’s the challenge that the tech support offered by classrooms varies across regions, and we are currently devising solutions to tackle these inequalities.

What are your goals for this virtual pilot?

The Toolkit workshops help to pilot test the quality and age appropriateness of the instructional material and generate student and educator feedback. Over the past months, the project has refined its prototype iteratively based on student and educator feedback from pilot tests across India and the US. The focus, this time, is on the adaptability to a digital medium and bolstering student autonomy. Additionally, we aim to test whether our toolkits influence students’ engineering identity, interest, and confidence and equip students to solve a problem using soft robotics.

Through the feedback gained from our previous workshops, we also recognize the challenge of introducing a novel topic like soft robotics to Indian classrooms, and we have devised significant changes in our curriculum to empower teachers with the right instruction materials. This workshop will also check in on how effective we have been in providing these materials. Finally, and this has been the goal of all our workshops and outreach efforts, we will gather participants’ opinions and analysis about what’s working and what can be better in our program.

Apart from the modifications that have been made to adapt to the virtual classrooms, what other changes have been incorporated in the program?

Among the changes in the curriculum, the most significant is that we have introduced a second kit to the program. Now we have a core kit that will introduce students to soft robotics and explain how to build the gripper. After the students build the gripper using the introduction kit, they can then then build their own soft gripper through the second kit. The idea is to encourage students to make their own prototype designs, test and iterate their designs, and finally reflect on their design process and learnings from it.

Additionally, the gripper has been redesigned so that it’s now longer than the previous version. With the longer gripper, students can attempt a greater variety of tasks and understand the functional uses of it. We hope that this will encourage students to solve more complex design problems using soft robotics.

A student creates a silicon mold using the Soft Robotics Toolkit.
You briefly mentioned the challenge of introducing soft robotics to classrooms and empowering teachers with the right tutorials. Can you tell us more about that?

The project focuses on soft robotics, which is not as well known among other robotic categories. It’s very much a research project in labs and universities. The idea is to bring this research to students in classrooms so they can have early exposure to this relatively new category of robotics, get ideas, and hopefully come up with some future soft robotic technologies when they find themselves in the capacity to do so.

We understand that this could be a challenge for any instructor or teacher as they attempt to bring this cutting-edge field of robotics to their classrooms. Our teachers are experts in teaching and learning and not necessarily in the discipline of robotics. Hence, we have introduced a two-part online workshop for teachers that includes a total of thirteen lessons to be completed over a period of six weeks. Participation in these online workshops will equip teachers with the right knowledge and tools to facilitate lessons in soft robotics.

How have you collected feedback on the Toolkit from teachers and students, and what are you looking to learn from their responses?

Each workshop is geared toward collecting data to analyze teacher and student outcomes as a result of a virtual soft robotics curriculum. For data collection, we use a variety of methods — ranging from surveys, reflection prompts, and semi-structured interviews — to understand factors influencing teacher self-efficacy in delivering robotics curriculum. One of the aims through this workshop is to evaluate whether our program is influencing an engineering identity and confidence in students, which we monitor through pre- and post-intervention surveys. This gives us a point of comparison and helps to assess how and if our program has managed to engender any change in engineering confidence and design efficacy.

Our questions primarily focus on soft robotics topics, reflection on student engagement and outcomes, the challenges or ease of teaching this curriculum remotely, and desires for future implementations.

What is the potential impact of the Toolkit in Indian classrooms?

More often than not, given the extent of learning that we want students to cover within a short time period, we often let go of the actual elements of learning and we underestimate how important it is for students to engage and go into depths while trying to cover the breadth. We hope to address the questions of depth as opposed to breadth in curriculums, where we may not be covering all sorts of robotics, but rather go into the depth of soft robotics to encourage students to apply the principles that they learn through soft robotics in other situations as well.

Our focus will be on active engagement as opposed to passive knowledge–sharing, where there’s often a “sage on the stage” telling the students what they need to know that may lead to a rather superficial level of understanding. But when you use your hands and your heads, as our program encourages students to do, it leads to a deeper construction of meaning that is enduring and will inspire confidence in the student’s engineering identity and STEM skills. ☆


 All opinions expressed by our interview subjects are their own and do not reflect the views of the Mittal Institute and its staff.