Do-it-yourself robotics kit gives science, tech, engineering, math students tools to automate biology and chemistry experiments

March 22, 2017

Bioengineers combined a Lego Mindstorms system (left) with a motorized pipette (center) for dropping fluids, allowing for simple experiments like showing how liquids of different salt densities can be layered. (credit: Riedel-Kruse Lab)

Stanford bioengineers have developed liquid-handling robots to allow students to modify and create their own robotic systems that can transfer precise amounts of fluids between flasks, test tubes, and experimental dishes.

The bioengineers combined a Lego Mindstorms robotics kit with a cheap and easy-to-find plastic syringe to create robots that approach the performance of the far more costly automation systems found at universities and biotech labs.

Step-by-step DIY plans

Children 10–13 years old built and explored the functionality of these robots by performing experiments (credit: Lukas C. Gerber et al./PloS Biology)

The idea is to enable students to learn the basics of robotics and the wet sciences in an integrated way. Students learn STEM skills like mechanical engineering, computer programming, and collaboration while gaining a deeper appreciation of the value of robots in life-sciences experiments.

“We really want kids to learn by doing,” said Ingmar Riedel-Kruse, assistant professor of bioengineering and a member of Stanford Bio-X, who led the team. “We show that with a few relatively inexpensive parts, a little training and some imagination, students can create their own liquid-handling robots and then run experiments on it — so they learn about engineering, coding, and the wet sciences at the same time.”

In an open-access paper in the journal PLoS Biology and on Riedel-Kruse’s lab website, the team offers step-by-step building plans and several fundamental experiments targeted to elementary, middle and high school students. They also offer experiments that students can conduct using common household consumables like food coloring, yeast or sugar.

In one experiment, colored liquids with distinct salt concentrations are layered atop one another to teach about liquid density. Other tests measure whether liquids are acids like vinegar or bases like baking soda, or which sugar concentration is best for yeast.

Funding was provided by grants from the National Science Foundation (Cyberlearning and National Robotics Initiative).

Stanford University School of Engineering | SFENG Robots Riedel Kruse v4

Abstract of Liquid-handling Lego robots and experiments for STEM education and research

Liquid-handling robots have many applications for biotechnology and the life sciences, with increasing impact on everyday life. While playful robotics such as Lego Mindstorms significantly support education initiatives in mechatronics and programming, equivalent connections to the life sciences do not currently exist. To close this gap, we developed Lego-based pipetting robots that reliably handle liquid volumes from 1 ml down to the sub-μl range and that operate on standard laboratory plasticware, such as cuvettes and multiwell plates. These robots can support a range of science and chemistry experiments for education and even research. Using standard, low-cost household consumables, programming pipetting routines, and modifying robot designs, we enabled a rich activity space. We successfully tested these activities in afterschool settings with elementary, middle, and high school students. The simplest robot can be directly built from the widely used Lego Education EV3 core set alone, and this publication includes building and experiment instructions to set the stage for dissemination and further development in education and research.