Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit another branch and do some programming. My colleage challenged me to come up with an activity that would get the tweens off of the internet games on the public computers and into the program room for the activity. That was quite the challenge! It is very hard to get many of our “regulars” to participate in programs, unless they involve eating junk food.
So, I began to brainstorm about possible activities that might meet the challenge. I would be visiting the branch twice, several weeks apart. I considered doing a robotics program with Ozobots. I’ve done a lot with the tiny robots in my own branch. But I wanted to do something that would really draw kids, mostly tweens, into the activity. We wouldn’t be together enough to create anything like an on-going series of programs, so coding probably wouldn’t work. Nor would building a robot like an mBot or SparkFun robot… What to do? What to do?
Then I got an idea. We wouldn’t have enough time to build a robot. But we could build part of a robot! We could create and experiment with robotic hands! In the process of doing the activity, we would learn all kinds of interesting things. In order to build a robotic hand, we would need to develop some understanding of the human hand and how it works, why it works the way it works, and how we can replicate that artificially.
The next step was to carefully cut out the foam sheet hands. Once everyone had a hand to work with, we discussed our own hands and how they work. Each finger has three bones. Our thumbs have two. The joints connecting them are like hinges, allowing them to bend toward our palms, and then to straighten again. That’s what allows us to grasp and hold objects.
So, the next step in building our robot hands was to create ‘bones.’ For these, we used sections of drinking straws, which we taped to the fingers of our foam sheet hands. We also taped longer sections of straw across the palm from the base of each finger toward the wrist.
Bones don’t work alone. Tendons connect bones to muscles, which contract and relax, making our joints move. To recreate tendons, we used string. Five strings were needed, one for each finger, and another for the thumb. One end of each string was taped down securely to the back of the hand and to the back of a fingertip. The string was wrapped over the tip of each digit and threaded through each of the straw ‘bones’ of the finger and the corresponding piece of straw across the palm.
The thumb worked a little bit differently. The palm straw for the thumb was attached across the palm toward the little finger side of the hand. Once all the strings were attached, we tied loops in the free end of each, and placed our own fingers in the loops of the corresponding fingers/thumb of our robot hand. With the other hand, we held the foam sheet wrist to stabilize the hand, then we bent our fingers in the loops to move the corresponding robot fingers. Our robot hands look a bit different from this picture, but the idea is fairly similar.
Once everyone could move their robot fingers, we practiced picking up objects, such as empty drink cans, pill bottles, markers, etc. It took a little bit of practice, but it was a lot of fun to figure out.
And it worked! More than half of the kids in the library that day came in the program room to see what was going on. Most stayed long enough to try out building a piece of a robot.
Maybe we can try feet the next time I go to visit…
As I prepared for this program, I found that I was far from the first person to come across this idea.
There are lots of resources online to help anyone along as he/she does this activity. Here are a few that I liked:
I tried the designs made from straws, but they didn’t work well for me. I also experimented with the designs using cardboard, but I found that using craft foam sheets worked better.
Here’s a video about a really, really big hand built for a dramatic set:
Before I do this activity again, I really would like to build these two robotic hands for us all to experiment with during the program:
It looks like loads of fun!
And that is a huge part of what makes learning memorable – good memories are like glue that keeps experiences from slipping away as we grow and grow older.