UPDATE: Engineers Assemble! How Sci-Fi Led Me to STEM

Nov. 3, 2015
Science fiction is often the gateway to further exploration for tomorrow’s young engineers.

Update: In recent news to be excited about, Disney has teamed up with Open Bionics to create superhero-themed bionic hands for kids. The first designs released are an Iron Man hand, a Star Wars lightsaber hand, and a Frozen snowflake hand.

Open Bionics offers Disney themed prosthetics to young children in hopes to encourage their rehabilitation process.

The purpose is for kids to get excited about their prosthetics and to consider physical therapy as interactive and enjoyable rather than boring. These bionic arms are 3D printed and have a full range of finger movement by using EMG sensors. The sensors stick to the skin and operate the fingers to open, close, and pinch. Assembly for the arms is only a week compared to a full month for normal prosthetics.

Open Bionics and Disney are using the advantages of modern engineering tools to create amazing mechanical tools for young kids and to inspire them to be extraordinary.

Previously (Published May 22, 2015): Growing up I wanted to be Peter Parker. From his sense of responsibility to his sarcastic wit, I wanted to be just like him. Spider-Man (aka Peter Parker), in the comic books, was also a scientist. He was a biophysics major in college and invented many of his own web shooters, which allowed him to swing across skyscrapers.

And while Peter Parker was my personal hero, “Avengers Assemble!” comes from another superhero:  Captain America shouts this phrase to rally the Avengers. I’m using it here to illustrate how science fiction and superheroes drew me to the world of science and to ultimately become an engineer. Today, the engineering work force is experiencing a drought of young engineers. The average engineer’s age is 51 and the industry is facing a dearth of up-and-comers to replace them.

In addition, the National Center for Education Statistics reported in 2013 that 48 percent of students exited science, technology, engineers, and mathematics (STEM) majors after starting their bachelor’s degree. This was attributed to scoring low grades in STEM classes and taking less challenging math classes the first year.

We need to draw young people to STEM at an earlier age so they can be better prepared in the future.

Recently, CNET published an article about young girls and computer science programming. While 74% of middle-school girls are interested in STEM, only 0.3 percent of high-school girls choose computer science as a major. Pooja Mehta is an 11-year-old girl interested in computer programming, but she never thought it could be a viable career choice. She didn’t know many other girls interested in computer science. However, she recently attended Qcamp, a two-week program hosted by Qualcomm that teaches young girls coding, app design, and robotics. Now Pooja not only wants to major in computer science, but has dreams of being CEO of her own software company. Programs like Qcamp encourage young people to pursue STEM studies by showing them they are not alone.

We have to remember that children are initially drawn to STEM via their imagination. They get excited in being able to create the programs and devices that they envision in their minds. At the Toy Fair in New York City, I saw a huge push for STEM toys. K’NEX is developing an architect  toy line for girls. Companies like Modular Robotics and LightUp are teaching kids about robotic systems and electrical programming through toys.

Robert Downey Jr. presents young Alex Pring with his very own, Iron Man-inspired robotic arm.

And let’s not forget how impressionable young minds are. A few months ago, there was a human interest story in the media about Robert Downey Jr. presenting a robotic arm to a youngster named Alex Pring. Of course, Downey is famous for portraying Tony Stark, industrial billionaire and the tech superhero Iron Man. Alex is a young boy who has an underdeveloped right arm. Limbitless Solutions, a startup company making free robotic arms for kids, built the robotic arm. The arm was 3D printed and uses an electromyography (EMG) sensor, able to detect electrical pulses from Alex’s right bicep. The EMG sensor controls the hand to open and close every time he flexes his bicep. I bet that having Iron Man deliver Alex his own robotic arm in person will inspire a future robotic engineer.

Watch Robert Downey Jr. deliver the robotic arm to Alex below, courtesy of Engineering TV:

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