UC uses robots, animals to engage students in science

High school students from across Cincinnati come to UC to learn about biology and engineering

To get more high school students to engage in science, the University of Cincinnati is turning to a seemingly unlikely pair — cool robots and amazing animals.

The National Science Foundation funded an unusual program at UC that combined faculty research in animal olfaction and color vision as well as bat echolocation with instruction in engineering.

The goal is to recruit underrepresented high school students to the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, by applying lessons related to animal senses to designing and building autonomous robots.

The innovative effort included faculty from biological sciences, psychology, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering as well as community partners. Advancing both collaboration and inclusion exemplifies the university’s Next Lives Here strategic direction.

“It’s a unique program because we’re bridging two fields,” said program director Stephanie Rollmann, an associate professor of biological sciences in UC’s McMicken College of Arts and Sciences.

STEM fields are seeing increasing representation among women and minority groups, but underrepresentation is still widespread. According to the National Science Board, women hold just 29 percent of STEM jobs despite making up half of the college-educated workforce. And minority groups are underrepresented as a percentage of the STEM workforce.

“We’re trying to increase underrepresented groups in STEM. That can lead to more creativity, more interesting ideas and innovation because you have people with different perspectives at the table,” Rollmann said.

The high school students engaged in hands-on activities relating to sensory biology and engineering.

“This program is the interface between two really broad disciplines,” Rollmann said. “I think it’s important for them to start thinking about connections between fields. That will position them well for the future.”

A lot of researchers use biology as an inspiration for robotics.

Dieter Vanderelst, UC professor who helped teach the Biology Meets Engineering camp

Three students work on a small handheld robot with wheels.

High school students collaborate to build an autonomous robot that uses sensors inspired by nature. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services

A student looks into a microscope.

A high school student peers into a microscope during a biology class at UC. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services

The multidisciplinary project was inspired partly by the research of the UC professors involved. Rollmann is studying animal olfaction. John Layne, associate professor in biological sciences, is studying animal color vision. Meanwhile, assistant professor Dieter Vanderelst has used the principles of bat echolocation to create autonomous robots that can navigate by sound. Vanderelst serves a joint appointment to four UC departments: biological sciences, psychology, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering, the latter two in UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science.

“The two fields are already tied together,” Vanderelst said. “A lot of researchers use biology as an inspiration for robotics. Or use robotics to test hypotheses for biological systems. That was the easy part.”

Vanderelst said researchers today often work with colleagues in a variety of disciplines. He wanted students to take away the message of collaboration, regardless of the field of study they choose.

“I think it’s important to get the message across that disciplines are not living in silos anymore. They don’t have to view their future as classic biology or engineering,” he said.

Students wearing colored goggles hold up flashcards in a biology classroom.

High school students identify colored flashcards while wearing different colored lenses during an exercise on color vision. They had to collaborate with each other to figure out what colors were represented on the cards. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services

I watched the professors and thought, 'This is how we should be teaching.'

Gloria Ononye, Cincinnati Public Schools science teacher

UC partnered with the Cincinnati Museum Center, the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden and the Cincinnati robotics company Festo. Students visited the zoo to learn about animal abilities. The museum center gave students an up-close look at some of its bats so they could understand how they use sound to navigate in the dark.

Students studied how termites use scent trails to navigate. And for an exercise on color, they wore glasses with colored lenses that required them to collaborate with teammates wearing different colors to figure out the colors on flashcards in front of them.

“Is this darker than this one? Do you see blue?” Mason High School student Shyam Sekar asked his teammates. “Are these two the same to you?”

The team went through the deck deliberately, sorting each color and finding the match on a poster in front of them. They made short work of the exercise, scoring 100 percent.

“You can only see one color but by comparing information with your neighbors, you can deduce the other colors. That’s exactly how your eyes work,” UC’s Layne said.

Two students wearing goggles peer at flashcards.

High school students work on a color vision exercise in which they have to work together while wearing different colored goggles to figure out what colors are represented on flash cards. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services

To illustrate olfactory prowess, UC police K-9 officer Lance Long and his yellow Labrador retriever, Dozer, put on a demonstration. Dozer is trained as an explosives-detection dog and helps police search venues before public events. UC police also work with law enforcement agencies around the region, Long said.

“Having a K-9 is like owning a truck — everyone wants to borrow it,” he joked.

Long hid a bean bag with explosives residue in a niche of a Dumpster behind a campus building and set Dozer to work investigating the area while the students watched. The dog alerted to the bag in less than a minute of hard looking and earned his reward, a tennis ball.

The students laughed and crowded around to pet Dozer.

Long said no technology is better than a dog’s nose at discerning smells.

A police officer and his explosives-detection dog stand in front of a group of students during a demonstration on UC's campus.

UC police K-9 officer Lance Long and his partner, Dozer, demonstrate the dog's amazing olfactory prowess for high school students participating in a biology-meets-engineering program. Photo/Michael Miller

Cincinnati Public Schools science teacher Gloria Ononye said she wants to apply some of the techniques from the UC program to her own classroom. She’s already arranged to return to UC with her class to see a scanning electron microscope.

“I watched the professors and thought, 'This is how we should be teaching,'” Ononye said.

Gloved hands hold a bat.

The Cincinnati Museum Center shows a bat to high school students during a presentation on echolocation at the University of Cincinnati. Students used lessons from biology to build autonomous robots. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services

“The university has far more equipment and expertise than we do. So when students see this in action, it gets them to think about what they could do themselves to solve real-life problems.”

Ononye said she is not sure why some students shy away from STEM subjects.

“I don’t know if it’s that we’re not exposing them to what is possible and making them comfortable that they can do it,” she said.

Or maybe, she said, some students don’t see the exciting real-world applications the subjects have in their lives, she said.

“If all you see is math, chemistry and physics, you may think that’s all there is to it,” Ononye said.

UC showed students real examples of engineering and physics at work, such as a demonstration of a cane for visually impaired pedestrians that uses sonar to identify obstacles in their path.

“I thought that was just the coolest thing,” she said. “It means the difference between telling the students and showing them.”

Students get a closer look at a bat.

High school students react to a bat from the Cincinnati Museum Center during a presentation on echolocation at the University of Cincinnati. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services

Celeste Leonard is a student at the Zoo Academy at Hughes STEM High School. She is interested in engineering but was concerned about how well she would do in college without a strong background in subjects such as chemistry. But after meeting UC engineering professors and students who might one day be her engineering classmates, she is more confident in her abilities, she said.

“It’s intimidating for me, but I feel like I’m more prepared for college,” she said. “I’m leaning more to engineering because I want to know how things work.”

A wheeled robot.

A student assembles an autonomous wheeled robot. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services

To wrap up the program, students gave demonstrations of their autonomous robots and presented research posters to parents, teachers and UC faculty who quizzed them on their projects just as college students are at research conferences.

UC’s Layne printed up the students’ posters late into the night so they would be ready for the presentations. Students said Layne’s demonstration of fiddler crab vision in his lab’s simulated coastal estuary was a highlight of the program.

“The fiddler crabs were so cool. Not many people in Ohio get to work with crabs,” said Nancy Bowman, a senior at Princeton High School.

She is taking AP biology, honors chemistry and other science classes. But Bowman said what she liked most was getting to know the professors.

“They were very inviting, and they talked about their families. That made the experience so much better for all of us,” she said. “They showed they’re willing to help and they want us to succeed. I really think that is going to help me in the future.”

Featured image at top: Students collaborate on a robotics project. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services

Students sit at a table covered in robotic parts and sensor packages.

High school students begin assembling their autonomous robots using various navigational sensors that take their cues from nature. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services

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