For a team of budding young scientists from The Haverford School, victory never tasted so sweet.
The students won last month's Harvard University-based 2017 Soft Robotics Competition in the high school category with a project whose title – "Edible Actuators" – doesn't do justice to their idea for a small flexible robot made from gummy bear-like candy that one day might be used as a life-saving medical device.
"You can actually eat science," marveled senior Cal Buonocore, one of eight members of Haverford's Soft Robotics Team who learned cutting-edge robotics over six months through a series of setbacks in a lab that often smelled like a candy store.
Their confectionary-based bots impressed the judges as one small step for the newish science of soft robotics, helping to show the feasibility of creating a biodegradable robot that can dissolve after performing a task inside the human body. Using their own gummy formula and 3D printed molds, the team successfully made their candy bots move, when pumped with air – robotic technology that could some day be used to open new treatment options for people suffering from heart failure.
But student scientists at the Main Line school of about 1,000 pre-K to 12th graders say the project had a secondary goal that may prove just as valuable: to create a classroom project that will make younger students more eager to learn about robotics because of the added appeal of a tasty morsel at the end of their experiment.
"Kids might say, 'Oh that's cool — and I can eat it,'" explained senior Xavi Segel, who was instrumental in developing the formula for the gummy candy used in the robots. "Then they can dive into the science."
Their edible project dramatized the way that rapid advances in technology are allowing young scientists to work with and even create devices that wouldn't have been feasible when they were kindergarteners.
"In Lower School (at Haverford) we did nothing with robotics," said Bram Schork, an 8th grader on the team. "Now there's a lot more access for kids to make actuators" using devices such as 3-D printers.
The technological advances allowed the elite private school students to score an actual breakthrough in an emerging technology – soft robotics – that's only really been around since the start of this decade. Their rudimentary creation isn't usable, yet, but proved that gelatin-based, biodegradable robots are possible.
"The way they approached it was pretty impressive — a lot of trial and error in making it work and impressive for high school students," said Ellen Roche, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was a contest judge, although not in the high school category. "The thought of making gummy candies into soft robots – it's pretty unique."
The basic premise behind soft robotics is that there are some functions for robots in which flexible materials are preferable to rigid ones – inside the human body, for example, for devices such as robotic heart sleeves that assists with pumping, or in manufacturing, for handling materials that might be damaged by a robot with a hard grip. They are implanted surgically and operated with an internal or external pump. Scientist are just beginning to develop soft robots that are biodegradable.
The rapid growth of the field inspired the annual Soft Robotics Toolkit design and research competition, in which teams from as far away as China and South Korea and from prestigious universities such as MIT compete to show off the best new ideas and uses. The competitors use video and a wiki-style website to show off their work to the contest judges.There were 80 teams, 23 of which were high school competitors.
At Haverford, Upper School science teacher Holly Golecki said that going into the contest students were talking about making a biodegradable soft robot – which would offer advantages over conventional material like silicone, which doesn't break down naturally. She said the kids discussed working with gelatin, when some of them – candy lovers, of course – had the lightbulb-over-head idea that gelatin is used in gummy bears.
It was the birth of a notion, but Golecki and the students said the scheme stalled for weeks while they struggled to create gummy candy with the right properties needed to become robots.
"We melted (store bought) gummies and the next day they were rock hard," recalled Buonocore. "We said, 'That's a problem.'"
So they came up with their own, improved gummy formula.
"We'd go up to the second-floor chemistry lab and Xavi was there with four hot plates with beakers bubbling," recalled senior Matt Baumholtz. "The entire room smelled like gummies. With his lab coat he looked like a mad scientist."
But the mad science paid off in the right formula. "Failure to us is a stepping stone to succeed," Buonocore said. With the deadline fast approaching last spring, Golecki would rally her young charges by telling them, "Today is going to be a good day."
Their "Eureka" moment came on April 12 when the teens got a four-inch long red gummy bot to bend by injecting air pressure into embedded pockets – all captured on video.
"I think it was a really novel idea to make the actuators out of something so low cost and something edible and biodegradable," said MIT's Roche. "I've made them out of silicon which silicon and it was tricky so it must have been hard to make them out of gummies."
It was unique enough that the Haverford team has secured a provisional U.S. patent for its successful candy formula – which they call the FORDula, in honor of the school mascot, the Fords.
While some on the team harbor a dream of someday marketing their invention to children, Golecki said it's more likely their work could inspire bioengineers to study more practical forms of biodegradable robotics.
The one thing the project won't inspire these kids to do is consume more candy. About half of the 25 pounds of gummy bears that the team bought for its research were ultimately devoured in the name of science. Declared Buonocore: "We'll never eat gummies again."