The Haverford School’s Soft Robotics Club was awarded first place in the 2018 High School Soft Robotics Design Competition, sponsored by the Soft Robotics Toolkit at Harvard University. The club developed a novel method of producing pneumatic actuators, and then used those actuators to create a glove that could help teach students the nuances of using a pottery wheel.
“When trying to teach a hands-on skill like throwing the pot on the pottery wheel, I was fascinated by the idea that I could transfer the knowledge that I have here in my hands to another student,” said Haverford School ceramics teacher Jacob Raeder. Under the guidance of Soft Robotics Club adviser and engineering teacher Dr. Holly Golecki, the club got to work developing a tool that would help novice ceramics students learn to throw pottery in a more efficient manner.
First, students worked with Raeder to track his hand motion when throwing a pot. The glove worn by the teacher contained a small force sensor that read the pressure being applied; Soft Robotics Club members used the actuators and data to input the teacher’s nuanced, difficult-to-teach movements into a glove that a novice ceramics student could wear to hone his or her own pottery-making skills.
On the road toward their goal of making it easier to learn a new craft, students also wanted to create a single-pour actuator manufacturing process using a dissolvable insert that was easy to make and durable. After rounds of experimentation, Ed King ’18 (West Point) had an idea for a “one pour, one mold” system that would replace the club’s more onerous and unreliable approach of a layered silicone mold. The key to his new method, dissolvable inserts, would allow him to use a single mold to create the “King actuators.”
“I first conceptualized the idea in my engineering class, as Dr. Golecki taught us how to make these actuators,” recalls King. “I saw the fundamental flaw that almost everyone in the class encountered: the seam at the meeting point of the two polymer molds. I immediately thought I would have to create some kind of removable placeholder in the center of the mold to keep the hollow integrity, and my mind jumped to this simple reaction I had seen where Styrofoam was “melted” by acetone. I knew if I could get the Styrofoam cut into the shape of the space on the inside, I could pump acetone in to dissolve it and turn it into a liquid after the polymer set.”
King’s discovery inspired other innovations. Freshman Elijah Lee wondered what other dissolvable materials could be used: “The foam was labor intensive and inaccurate,” said Lee. “I found polyvinyl alcohol, which dissolves in water and can be 3D printed easily. I designed the inserts in AutoCAD and then 3D printed them.” The students experimented with inserts of various shapes; each give the actuation a different feel and angle.
After several iterations and collaboration among the Soft Robotics Club’s 17 members, the students achieved their goal of developing a single-pour actuator with a dissolvable insert. While the project was not centered around teaching ceramics, the students believe that soft robotics has a place in teaching anything that requires muscle memory or nuanced motions. “The application of this glove is to act as muscle memory for people to learn how to throw pottery more efficiently,” said senior Calvin Costner.
This is Haverford’s second-consecutive year of winning the Soft Robotics Toolkit competition. Last year, the Soft Robotics Club made edible soft robotic actuators that are fully biocompatible, biodegradable, and could help inform the design of future implantable soft robotic devices. The students filed a patent on their invention and were published in the trade journal MRS Advances, and this year’s club hopes to do the same.
“I am continuously proud of the work that our students put into developing and testing novel ideas,” said Dr. Golecki. “Now, I am encouraging our group to look into launching a soft robotics program at another local high school. We want to empower others to start innovating in this field and to advance the level of work that young students can accomplish.”
Members of the 2018 Soft Robotics Club include alumni Edward King ’18 (West Point) and Matthew Baumholtz ’18 (University of Chicago); seniors Intel Chen, Bryce Broadus, Biagio DeSimone (Student Body President), Robert Esgro, Henry Sun, Calvin Costner and Troy Barnes; juniors Alexander Greer, Aditya Sardesai, Toby Ma and Daniel Chow; sophomore Safa Obuz; and freshmen Josiah Somani, Bram Schork, and Elijah Lee.
Learn more and see the students' research, videos, and photos at softroboticstoolkit.com/king-actuator.