Science Inquiry Meets Coding

A Low-Cost Programmable Robot for Scientific Experimentation

What is it?

The Liquid Handling Robot project is a collaboration between Teachers College Columbia University, University of Arizona and Learningtech.org, supported by an NSF grant. The goal is to create an inexpensive, yet accurate and reliable, robot capable of pipetting liquids, suitable for use in high school or middle school biology activities.

Why do it?

  • Enable hands-on, NGSS-aligned experiments with liquids in a project-based, inquiry-driven, cost-effective manner
  • Empower students to explore the power of coding and robotics, in authentic context beyond simple game development or autonomous vehicles
  • Let students directly experience how technological advances can accelerate scientific research
  • College/Career Readiness – BioTech workers do not do much manual pipetting anymore
  • By coding the procedures using Scratch-like blocks, even students and teachers with limited computer science backgrounds can access automated liquid handling capabilities typical of those used in commercial biotech, but at a fraction of the cost.

What does it include?

  • Cuvettes and pipettes
  • 96 well plate
  • Motors and sensors
  • Arduino (mega)
  • Software layers
  • Laser cut plastic
  • Downloadable designs

This National Robotics Initiative project will test a series of liquid handling robots in school biology and chemistry classes to determine the range of learning opportunities that can be supported through the instructional use of collaborative robots. Low-cost robots using the Lego Mindstorms platform will be used to implement classroom activities ranging from artistic expression using colorful arrangements of liquids to performing experiments using dilution series, density gradients, and spectral measurements. The aim is to make biotechnology more tangible and relevant to students while supporting interdisciplinary learning as recommended by the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). This innovative approach to engaging students in biology and chemistry will be tested with teachers and students in grades 6-12, with a range of user studies being employed to examine learning outcomes and guide the development process. The goal is to integrate liquid handling into educational robotics to enhance current science curricula by enabling deeper inquiry, more variety in learning experiences, and increased attention to interdisciplinary and project-based education.

The research of this project will focus on two themes: students’ sense making as they engage in inquiry activities using the platform, and the pedagogical and infrastructural support needed for sustainable deployment and implementation. Multimodal data collected from students running experiments will be combined with traditional qualitative and quantitative methods to answer three primary questions related to the two research themes: 1) How effectively does the system capture the practices and inquiry activities of real scientists using similar tools? 2) How do the affordances identified by the first question map onto the learning goals of engaging in extended inquiry cycles within the context of limited amounts of time available to 6-12 grade science teachers? And 3) What implementation challenges are associated with our proposed curricular distribution model which relies on software and instructions being downloaded and fabricated in local Makerspaces or Lego/Arduino kits being used in schools? The research plan for the project will progress over three years from Microgenetic design and testing during the first year to controlled study of in-class effectiveness during year 2. In the final year of the project, teacher-led in-class effectiveness will be examined.

Example Projects

Middle School

Integrate coding, computational thinking with authentic science topics: 

  • Measurement and precision
  • Repetition with variations
  • Relationship between density and layering of liquids
  • Color theory 

High School

  • Learn advanced laboratory procedures (Grade 9+)
    • Serial dilutions
    • Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay [ELISA]: Horseradish peroxidase (Grade 10)
  • Maker space / Fab lab projects
    • Improved designs (such as snap together parts)
    • Variations (such as undersea data collector)

Fuhrmann, T., Ijaz D., Blikstein, P. (in preparation). Computational thinking’s Advantages while engaging in scientific inquiry through physical experimentation in middle school. In Proceedings of the IDC 2021 Conference, Virtual.

Team

Paulo Blikstein

Tamar Fuhrmann

Ingmar Riedel-Kruse (University of Arizona)

Mark L. Miller (Learningtech.org)

Len Erickson(Learningtech.org)

Ethan Li (Stanford)

Chris Miller (Learningtech.org)

Mike Wirth (Learningtech.org)

 

Paulo Blikstein

Ingmar Reidel-Kruse (University of Arizona)

Mark Miller

Funding

NSF, Div. of Information & Intelligent Systems award: Liquid handling robots – a new paradigm for STEM education, Award# 1638070

Contact

For more information contact Paulo Blikstein, research@tltlab.org