“Our finger moves!”: An interdisciplinary 3D modelling and robotics workshop for high school students

I love collaborations! In a world where the explosion of specialized knowledge means having a deep understanding of any field requires years of study and reflection, it is essential to collaborate with others, in order to be able to benefit from a collective set of skills and perspectives, spread across many people.

Our team at work

Our team at work

In a recent Youth Workshop jointly run by the Centre for Innovation and Data Driven Design (CIVDDD) and the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC), we had a chance to do just that. An interdisciplinary team of mechanical engineers and computer scientists specializing in the diverse areas of robotics, computer graphics and human-computer interaction, collaborated to design and conduct a series of three workshops for high school students. The workshops consisted of hands-on group activities in which each team was to learn how to customize and change a 3D model for 3D printing, how to control basic movements using servos and micro controllers, and, finally, how to combine these to move their 3D printed models in a group installation.

I had collaborated with Barbara Whitmer, the CIVDDD project manager who was leading the team on another set of workshops for high school students in the Fall that had proven successful and had given us another opportunity to run workshops with high school students. This time we were more ambitious and aimed for hands-on workshops in which the students could experience 3D modelling and printing and robotics in a meaningful way. This involved coming up with a creative and engaging activity for the workshop participants, bringing together expertise from several different fields, figuring out the logistics of what should be done when and the sequence, “narrative” and outcome of each workshop.

After a few brainstorming sessions, Barbara, came up with a fun idea: how about having student teams each play with the 3D model of a single finger, customize them within constraints, print them out and attach them to a pre-made hand whose movements could be controlled by servos? This was a great idea and would not only give the students a chance to be creative and try out cutting-edge tools and techniques but also see the outcome of their efforts in a tangible and physical way at the end of the workshop.

The next question was how to do it? Tom Young, a PhD student in Computer Science who has expertise in robotics and embedded electronics joined our team and came up with several ideas of what to cover during the robotic workshop. This included showing students how to implement simple movement using Arduino microcontrollers.

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After consulting with several of the engineering faculty, Dr. Pouya Rezai and two of his graduate students, Ramtin Ardeshiri and Jacob Leung also joined the team. They designed the gears and shaft that was to be the base of the fingers and translate the movement of the servo to the movement of the fingers. Everything (except the servo and microcontrollers) was to be 3D printed.

On the 3D design side, we had the help of Ryan Schmidt of Autodesk who is the creator of the powerful MeshMixer program. I collaborated with him to modify an existing hand model such that it could be emptied and scaled to house the servo and gears. We also extracted finger models from it for participants to play with and customize.

Our team worked relentlessly behind the scenes for many weeks to make the project happen. But the results were amazing, having the participants create their own customized and tangible objects and see them setup in a collective project was great!

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The first workshop was led by Ryan who introduced MeshMixer and taught the 5-member student teams how to use it to make modified 3D fingers. The outcome of this workshop was a series of 10 customized finger models that were cleaned-up and prepared for printing by Ryan. We had a series of 5 printers from MakeLab which started printing the fingers right away.

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In the second workshop, Tom, introduced the students to basic robotics concepts and showed them how to connect a servo to Arduino and how to program it. At the end of the workshop, the students could control servo movements programatically or by using the keyboard.

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Finally, at the last session, the fingers were assembled onto the two hand setup that Ramtin, Jacob and Tom had prepared previously. The final outcome looked weird and wonderful: a multicoloured hand with strangely shaped fingers that were designed on the spot and conjured out of thin air!

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I really enjoyed the collaboration and would also like to thank Josh Sideris and Hugh Chesser for their help and ideas. Here’s a link to another review of the event.

Days later in Montreal, at a reception for the Graphics Interface conference which was held at a wax museum, I saw a number of wax hand models that reminded me of our workshop!20140508_192714

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