On February 28, 2019, the Collaborative Haptics and Robotics in Medicine (CHARM) at Stanford University hosted a group of eight high school girls, presenting on the Science of Touch (haptics). The afternoon consisted of a presentation and several demonstrations showing how robots can be used to study touch in a virtual environment and the ways in which haptics can be applied in a real-world setting.
To kick off the event, the director of CHARM, Professor Allison Okamura, shared her educational background and how she came to work in robotics. She then turned over the presentation to two PhD students, both of whom are studying soft robotics. They spoke about what we can learn from nature to improve the way in which we interact with our environment. They also spoke about how design thinking (empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test) and iterative design is implemented to improve their research. The PhD students had the high school students consider how haptics could improve learning retention in a similar to how combining seeing, speaking, and hearing improves learning retention.
Following the presentation, we moved to the Haptics lab where the girls were given the opportunity to interact with five graduate students and learn about their research projects. This included:
- Surgical robotics to assist physicians. Similar to the da Vinci Surgical System, the graduate student demonstrated how robots can assist physicians in surgery, making procedures less invasive. Specifically, these devices can be used in prostate and breast cancer. The girls were each given the opportunity to test the machine.
- Rehabilitation robotics to assist patients in moving following a brain injury. This particular student was researching how to improve movement following death of brain tissue due to a stroke. He explained how the brain controls the body through proprioception, and how we process where our body is in space. Through his research, we may be able to better understand errors in proprioception that occur following a stroke, and how we can help patients overcome the damage.
- Soft robotics through a bioinspired vine robot. In nature, animals are made of soft, flexible tissue while most/all of our robots are constructed on hard, rigid material. Using bio-inspiration, it is possible model robots to function better in our natural environment, have a certain degree of motion, and achieve new things. The graduate student shared a few examples of her research, including robots made of plastics and silicon and coffee grounds.
- Haptics in virtual reality. Currently we have the ability to interact with robots through a stylus, but by developing wearable haptic robots, we can reach into the world and experience touch. The graduate student shared her research which included a wearable device that can help use to better understand skin stretch, muscle stiffness, and how we think about texture.
- Soft actuators to support special orientation. Using a wearable device outfitted with a motor, it is possible to communicate direction with people. Potential uses for this wearable device include guidance for people who are blind. The graduate student noted that people can detect change as low as 30 degrees.
Following the hands-on demonstrations, three female PhD students were available for questions and answers. Each discussed how they became interested in engineering, and their path to Stanford, noting that a big driver was wanting to help people by building things. They emphasized that while your degree may influence what you do in the future, especially if you are interested in a technical field, where you go is not as important. Attending a school that is an appropriate size fit, and where you can have a greater impact by getting involved in classes and clubs, may be more important for your success than choosing a school simply based on name recognition.
The PhD students urged the high school students to keep an open mind about what they want do in the future. There is a lot to learn and many experiences to have in college that may help direct their future. A final point was to remember that everyone has something to bring to the table. It is key to focus on your strengths, whether that be creativity, communication, analytics, rather than focus on weaknesses. The teams that are successful are those that have a wide variety of people, each of whom brings a different skill set to the table.
The high school students found the event stimulating, and challenging, but in a positive way. The best part of the day was the hands-on demonstrations and the students noted they would have liked more hands-on activities and more time in the lab. They also would have liked more time speaking with graduate students about their experiences.
Nearly all said that they would recommend future YWIB events to their friends, and would absolutely come to another event. Additional photos from the event can be found here.