Liquid-handling Lego robots enable hands-on learning of modern biotechnology concepts. (A) The 1-D robot constructed from the educational EV3 kit can handle up to 20 standard cuvettes (B). A standard 1-ml syringe (C) is easily modified for Lego compatibility (D). The motorized crankshaft pipette head (E) is inspired by professional laboratory pipettes (inset). (F) An advanced 2-D robot can handle up to four 96-well plates, in which a linear rail system (G) enables precise droplet delivery (H). (I) Drop volumes for 1-ml and 25-μl syringes using the linear rail system (G) are calibrated from images against drops obtained with standard pipettes (Inset E); scale bars: 5 mm. Photo: PLoS Biology

Robotics kits can be found in many classrooms across the country, giving kids an introduction to engineering and coding. However, fun and hands-on biology experiment kits are harder to come by.

Stanford researchers have now found a way to integrate life sciences into this learning experience by modifying a Lego Mindstorms robotics kit so that it can perform automated liquid handling tasks at a low cost.

“The best learning comes if students are self-interested and have room to explore themselves, hands-on,” senior study author Ingmar Riedel-Kruse, assistant professor of bioengineering, told Laboratory Equipment.

Riedel-Kruse has worked with Stanford’s School of Education for educational research projects in the past, such as building a “cloud lab” where students could do experiments remotely, for prototyping purposes, and he had previously built machines out of Legos to run experiments.

“The idea was how could we simplify this whole concept such that even children could basically replicate something like this in a traditional school or after school environment,” Riedel-Kruse said.

It didn’t hurt that he also enjoyed tinkering with Legos as a child himself.

The modifications to the Lego Mindstorms robotics kit are fairly simple and only require minimal, inexpensive add-ons. For the simplest experiments, all that’s required is a normal plastic syringe and the plastic tips, which are cut off and glued on to a Lego piece. Plastic containers commonly used in laboratories, such as cuvettes and multiple well plates are also used so students can pipette fluids from and into the containers.

From simple to complex

The kinds of experiments that can be run and the amount of complex thinking involved ranges from fairly straight-forward and guided, to more abstract and long-term.

The team tested the robots in three settings; after school with a group of fifth graders which Riedel-Kruse and a colleague supervised, middle school students who were led by their teacher, and high school students over the summer in Riedel-Kruse’s lab.

Depending on how complex the user decides to make the activity, it could be suitable for kids as young as fourth grade, all the way to professional scientists who want to automate experiments, Riedel-Kruse explained.

Based on what robot design is used, the machines can handle liquid volumes even smaller than 1 microliter, or the size of a single coarse grain of salt, making them comparable to some professional liquid handling robots.

A paper published March 21 in PLoS Biology outlines step-by-step building plans and various experiments aimed at elementary, middle and high school students.

One of the simplest experiments that can be performed involves using food coloring, where students mix different colors. They can also experiment with concentration hues, where the student pipettes blue food coloring into white liquids, getting a decreasingly concentrated blue color. 

Other experiments use everyday items users can find in their kitchen, such as salt, sugar and yeast. For the salt experiment, students can mix food coloring with different salt concentrations, creating stacked layers of different colored fluids that don’t mix together, teaching how salt concentration relates to density.

Or students can make different sugar solutions and put them on to yeast, watching as they start to produce gases and bubble up.

For older students, the experiments are less guided, and pose questions like “how can you make this robot design optimal, or create your own experiments that could be run on this robot.”

“So you can really trim this down to something very simple and basic and guided, and on the other extreme end you can have open-ended activities that run for weeks,” Riedel-Kruse said.

Building a bridge

Riedel-Kruse said that there’s a very successful modulation of having robotics in a school setting that engages kids in those kind of activities, and he was looking at how to make a bridge and bring that into the life sciences.

By putting a tool in front of children that brings together both robotics and biology, it gives them a chance to get interested in both.

“They all kind of relate to each other—math, physics, engineering, building things, looking at living beings—this is really a cross-over,” Riedel-Kruse said. “You can automate your experiments, make your biology experiments more sophisticated, and at the same time you learn something about programming.”

Although this was not a deep, detailed educational study, Riedel-Kruse noted, they did observe if the system works for the targeted age groups and if the kids enjoyed it.

The fifth graders really liked to work with colors he said, and even though they would receive one task to complete, instead of completing it and just moving on to the next, they wanted to linger and try to repeat the experiment with a different color.

“They traverse to all sorts of side activities, which shows they enjoy it and want to explore on their own.”

The team also did some post-tests to determine what the kids had learned by asking them basic questions about concepts, such as density before and after they experimented with the robots, and Riedel-Kruse said the students picked up on these ideas.

For the next steps of the project, the National Science Foundation has provided a grant to Riedel-Kruse and two collaborators, Paulo Blikstein, a professor from Stanford’s School of Education, and Mark Miller of Learning Tech, which is a non-profit that does robotics and learning activities in afterschool settings and summer camps.

The goal is roll the project out a bit wider with more schools, and more specific testing to see how it should be framed to get the optimal learning experience and student motivation out of it.

All of the building and experimentation guides are open-access so the researchers also plan to have community pages where teachers and other users can share experiences in hopes of disseminating the tool more widely and having more people pick it up to use in their classrooms.

“The overarching thing is how can we bring robotics and the wet sciences together and cross-pollinate to make it exciting and fun for the students,” Riedel-Kruse said.