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A student creates a silicon mold using the Soft Robotics Toolkit.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, schools around the world have wrestled with the challenges of engaging students through  hands-on learning mediums. The Soft Robotic Toolkit, part of the Mittal Institute’s Multidisciplinary Approach to Innovative Social Enterprises, supported by Tata Trusts, can help address these challenges because it can be disseminated to students and assembled outside of a classroom setting. The project provides students with kits, each of which contain the parts and instructions to create a soft robot and teaches students the steps to build this, from creating silicone materials to assembling pieces.   As detailed in a MI November interview with two members of its project team, the Soft Robotics Toolkit uses active, hands-on pedagogy to engage students in  cutting-edge STEM concepts. 

In early 2021, the project team conducted a virtual pilot to test the latest prototype of the toolkit. The pilot involved 60 students and 11 instructors in six schools in New Delhi, Pune, and Bihar, and was implemented through 13 lessons over a 6-week period. This pilot was the culmination of two years of testing and refining a prototype based on educator and student feedback in India. 

The toolkit used for the pilot consisted of a Soft Robotics Gripper Starter and aExtension kit. The first kit introduced students to soft robotics and explained how to build a gripper. After building the gripper using instructions from the introductory kit the students could build their own soft gripper through the second kit. The idea was to encourage students to create their own prototype, test their designs, and reflect on their design process. The pilot aimed to test whether their toolkit influenced studen’s’ interest and confidence in engineering while also testing  the project’s adaptability to a digital medium. 

The student-focused workshops were preceded by an online professional development workshop to prepare instructors to facilitate lessons in soft robotics. “Our first goal in developing the curriculum was to be able to deliver it remotely or virtually. This was necessary during the COVID-19 pandemic but after the pandemic, it will enable us to expand the number of students who can benefit from the curriculum,” explains Holly Golecki, Associate at the Harvard Biodesign Lab and Teaching Assistant Professor at University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. “Secondly, we wanted to empower teachers. One of the major barriers to bringing robotics into classrooms where it doesn’t already exist is teacher confidence. We focused on developing a workshop for teachers that would allow them to experience the curriculum and see its design-thinking framework that would enable them to personalize the curriculum for students in their specific region and local area.”

In late June, the project team and students and teachers from the pilot program came together virtually to celebrate the conclusion of the pilot. Students shared the novel devices they had designed using different components of the Toolkit. Chintan Vaishnav, Mission Director of the Atal Innovation Mission at the NITI Aayog, presented awards to the students who had created the best designs.

The curriculum and the toolkit enabled students and their teachers to build robots using a five-stage design process (empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test) – a process that can  be implemented to find practical solutions to other real-world problems. With this in mind, failure and problem-solving were embedded in the curriculum’s design. Speaking at the end-of-pilot celebration, Professor Conor Walsh, the Founder of Harvard Biodesign Lab and the Principal Investigator for this project, said, “we discovered that failure was not as supported or accepted for our target group, but this is a reality when doing research or working in the industry. I think the impact we had on our target group was showing them to look at failure as part of learning and every failure should take them closer to a successful solution.”