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Using Soft Robotics to introduce Engineering Design+ #64

+GenWise Staff Announcements

Quote of the Week

“Making, tinkering, and engineering are ways of knowing that should be visible in every classroom, regardless of the subject or age of the students. In a makerspace these processes may be defined loosely: Making is about the active role construction plays in learning. The maker has a product in mind when working with tools and materials. Tinkering is a mindset – a playful way to approach and solve problems through direct experience, experimentation, and discovery. Engineering extracts principles from direct experience. It builds a bridge between intuition and the formal aspects of science by being able to better explain, measure, and predict the world around us. -Sylvia Libow Martinez, Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom

Hi, this is the GenWise team– we bring out this newsletter to help parents and educators to complement the work of formal schools and associated systems. We can help our children thrive in these complex times only by exchanging ideas and insights and working together. We are also a founder-member of the Gifted India Network– if you are interested in issues related to gifted education and talent development, an easy way to keep updated about talks, programs and resources is to join the Gifted India Network telegram channel (

Join this conversation on learning, by commenting on our posts or writing to us.


Using Soft Robotics to introduce Engineering Design

GenWise Staff Announcements

Using Soft Robotics to introduce Engineering Design

In this post, Sapna Shah shares vignettes from her work on a soft robotics curriculum, carried out as a Research Fellow at the Harvard Biodesign Lab. The value of such a curriculum is that the context of making, tinkering and engineering (see Sylvia Libow Martinez’s quote at the start of this newsletter) motivates the students to learn, while the careful designed learning activities promote critical thinking and psychosocial skills.

Sapna is now a full-time member of the GenWise team- read more in the section ‘GenWise Staff Announcements’. A course on soft robotics will also be part of the residential Gifted Program in Bengaluru from Dec 18- 30, 2022. Details of this program will be announced in a couple of weeks.

A Background to the Soft Robotics Curriculum

From 2018-2021, I worked as a Research Fellow at the Harvard Biodesign Lab developing a design based curriculum to introduce middle and high school students to Soft Robotics. 

Now what is Soft Robotics?

Simply put, soft robotics is a subset of robotics focused on creating components and systems using flexible materials, such as rubbers or fabrics that are able to stretch, bend, or deform when external forces are applied. Using soft materials to make robots has many advantages, including safety, because soft materials can be much less harmful for human– robot interactions than traditional rigid components. 

Participation in traditional educational robotics, tinkering, and making are common precursors to enrollment in engineering majors. Many robotics workshops for younger students focus on computer programming and electronic engineering, which can be an effective way to attract some students to engineering, but risks alienating learners who have more interest in and aptitude for physical design. By emphasizing hands-on design-and-build exercises, soft robotics activities may attract a broader range of students to engineering overall.

As a researcher I developed and piloted a curriculum that served multiple purposes: to expose students to the field of soft robotics, engineering design, and technical aspects of robotic actuators and controls. In addition, we created resources and conducted professional development workshops aimed at empowering teachers to bring soft robotics lessons into their classrooms. This curriculum encouraged students to use the engineering design framework to ask, imagine, plan, create, test, and improve within a design task.

Vignettes from a Student’s Experience

Meet one of my students, Nandini (name changed to protect privacy). Let’s dive into her experiences with Soft Robotics through the following excerpts from her design journal. 

Step 1 : Problem Identification

Nandini spent some time testing her soft gripper. She then noted, “Because the gripper’s actuators are long, it is hard to pick up very small objects. The relatively smooth surface of the actuators also make it hard to pick up smooth objects because the object just slips out of the gripper’s grasp.” 

Nandini’s design challenge was to re-design the actuator so it could pick up smaller and smoother objects.  

Step 2 : Imagine

Like many engineers Nandini also turned to nature to gather inspiration. 

“My idea for a different gripper that can pick up smaller and smoother objects was inspired by two different things in nature and something humans have built before. The tentacle of an octopus inspired the bumpy surface of the actuators in my idea. This bumpy surface would help create the friction needed to pick up smooth objects. The human hand inspired the multiple actuators, and the placement of these actuators was inspired by claws in a claw machine.” 

Step 3 : Planning

Nandini spent time sketching out her ideas. Initially she made conceptual sketches but later she progressed to more detailed drawings with measurements. 

“My new gripper will have four actuators placed in a formation that makes it similar to a claw in a claw machine. This formation along with all the strings connected to one ring will, in theory, help with control when picking up an object. Each actuator has bumps/texture that will help it pick up smooth objects, and the smaller scale should be able to help with picking up smaller objects.” 

Step 4 : Prototyping and Testing

Once Nandini* was clear about her design she set off to convert her idea into a tangible prototype using cardboard.

After constructing the cardboard prototype (Figure 3), Nandini tested her design (Figure 4). She reported, “I tested my initial prototype by trying to pick up many different small things. I was able to pick up a few things like bottles and cotton ball-like objects. I was able to pick up tube-like things from the side, but it took a lot of effort to pick up pens and pencils. I think this difficulty will be solved once I make the actuators out of silicone, which would be much more flexible.”

She also shed light on the design features she planned on changing after prototype testing, 

“I also realized that having only one ring to control the gripper might be less versatile than it could be. I think if I use two rings to control opposing actuators, it will make the gripper much more versatile and easier to control.”

Step 5 : Final Design

After finalizing the design Nandini* built her design from silicone. (Figure 5a) and demonstrates it can pick a pencil (Figure5b) and marker (Figure 5c).


Engaging with the Soft Robotics curriculum helped Nandini learn not just core engineering and design skills like taking an idea to a tangible solution but also critical life skills such as perseverance and resourcefulness. She shares “When I ran into a problem, I left it for a while to clear my mind. Then I could come back to the problem with a fresh mind and find a way to fix it.”

I am currently working with other GenWise mentors to bring the Soft Robotics program to children in India, and am excited about the possibilities this offers!

GenWise Staff Announcements

Sapna Shah joins GenWise as Director- Gifted Programs. Sapna played the role of Academic Dean at our Gifted Program at Manipal in May 2022 and was the Program Head for the program at Shiv Nadar University in June 2022. We are glad to announce that she has joined us full-time now to oversee all aspects of our enrichment programs for gifted school students- from the academic experience to socio-emotional learning to the residential experience. Her rich experience as a practitioner and a researcher at Harvard and Teach for India make her an asset to our team. More about Sapna below.

Sapna started her professional career as a Sport Physical Therapist (PT) in New York City. After working as a PT for 7 years she moved back to India to join the Teach For India fellowship. She was awarded the Transformational Teaching Award at the end of her fellowship for her work with students. Post fellowship she pursued her Masters in Education from Harvard University and continued working at the Harvard School Of Engineering and Applied Sciences on developing a cutting edge Soft Robotics Curriculum. The curriculum has been piloted across middle and high schools in India and the US. Sapna believes that powerful learning environments have 3 unique elements which she weaves  into any learning space she designs: -Mastery – where students learn to use their knowledge and skills just like experts in that field -Creativity – where students are not just consuming information but producing work, and -Identity – where students gradually come to see themselves as producers in the field. 

Sowmya Jatesan is now Vice President- Learning Practice. GenWise mentor, Sowmya , has been an integral part of our team since 2018. Over the last couple of years, she has been leading our efforts on teacher mentoring, bringing the deep subject knowledge and teaching expertise of GenWise mentors to bear upon the classroom experience in schools. She and her team are working with 50 Math and Science teachers of a leading international school in Bengaluru on an ongoing basis.

In this new role, Sowmya will work on deepening GenWise’s expertise in engineering effective learning environments and teacher mentoring, and build more partnerships with schools and other centres of excellence in the country.


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