MAY 2011
A Publication of the
Applied Math and Science Education Repository

The AMSER Science Reader Monthly aims to provide educators with a useful package of information about a particular topic related to applied math and science by combining freely available articles from popular journals with curriculum, learning objects, and web sites from the AMSER portal. The AMSER Science Reader Monthly is free to use in the classroom and educators are encouraged to contact AMSER with suggestions for upcoming issues or comments and concerns at

This month's AMSER Science Reader Monthly topic is Bionics.

Article by Josh Fischman
Synopsis and resource annotations by Max Grinnell

article photos

The word "bionic" has been used in science fiction for years, but recent advances have made robotic arms, eyes, and ears a reality. Bionics is the study of mechanical systems that function like living organisms or parts of living organisms and the term is used to describe those individuals whose body parts are replaced by devices embedded in their nervous systems that respond to commands from their brains. This thoughtful National Geographic piece by Josh Fischman explores the cutting-edge world of bionics.

The article begins by profiling Amanda Kitts as she works with her students at the Kiddie Kottage Learning Center in Tennessee. She is able to inform (and entertain) her young charges with her robotic arm, which is made out of flesh-colored plastic, three motors, a metal frame, and rather sophisticated electronics. Amanda received this robotic replacement arm after she lost her own arm in a car accident in 2006. This new arm uses sensors that detect impulses from her brain to move the arm, hand, and fingers. The arm has extended her own physical abilities and has also helped her to cope with the emotional loss of this limb.

Many patients suffering from limb loss retain the nerves and brain functionality to use replacement limbs. Within their brain, "below the level of consciousness, lives an intact image of that arm, a phantom." In recent years, advances in microscopic electrodes and surgical implants have transformed the lives of more than those with missing limbs, it has begun to help those who were previously unable to see, hear, or in many cases, move.

Bionics, which combines mechanical engineering, anatomy, and robotics, is made possible by many trial and error sessions and experimentation and the field is often defined as a restoration process. According to Joseph Pancrazio, program director for neural engineering at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, "That's really what this work is about: restoration, when a person with a spinal-cord injury can be in a restaurant, feeding himself, and no one else notices, that is my definition of success."

Todd Kuiken at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) has been working on the "bionic arm" for years; Kuiken knew that nerves in an amputee's stump could still carry signals from the brain, and he was able to develop a connection from the brain to the prosthesis. It was a complicated process that involved some experimentation, but eventually he was able to make these vital connections. The technique remains experimental, but it is hoped that eventually it could be as common as the hearing device known as the cochlear implant.

The piece ends by examining the improvements that have been made with cochlear implants, bionic eyes, electrodes for quadriplegics, and the possibility of using neural prosthetics to allow afflicted patients to move remote objects with their minds.

Found below is a list of useful resources that will illuminate and enhance understanding of the topics found within this article. The first link will take visitors to the homepage of the Robotics Academy at Carnegie Mellon University. The site includes educational resources for educators, including lesson plans and videos. The second link leads to a lesson plan designed to help students learn how to develop a functioning robot arm with everyday materials. Moving on, the third link leads to a paper from researchers at McGill University that will be most useful for college professors who might be looking into developing a course in medical robotics. The fourth link leads to the University of Toronto's Artificial Perception Lab, which includes materials related to their work on artificial information systems and robotics. The last link leads to a site that provides some educational activities about the human body and how the skeletal system functions and will help students understand some of the anatomy discussed in the article above.

Robotics Academy
Based at Carnegie Mellon University, the Robotics Academy is designed to help young people learn about the world of robotics through interactive activities, videos, and lesson plans. First-time visitors can check in on the "Educators" area to learn about the STEM-based curriculum and educational standards used throughout the site's materials. In the "Curriculum" area, visitors can view video clips that address robotic engineering, along with lesson plans. Some of the curricular activities here are also available in Spanish. Visitors should also check out their blog, as it features highlights from events like the VEX Robotics World Championships and upcoming online chat sessions. Also the site contains building instructions and details on how to enter the aforementioned VEX Robotics championships, which encourage students and hobbyists to build real robots.
Build Your Own Robot Arm
This is a lesson plan to develop a robot arm using common materials. Students will explore design, construction, teamwork, materials selection and use. Although stated as suitable for high school students it could be used in an introductory CC course in robotics to stress concepts. The full lesson plan and student worksheet are available as PDFs. Participating teams of three or four students are provided with a bag of simple materials. Each team must use the materials to design and build a working robot arm. The robot arm must be at least 18 inches in length and be able to pick up an empty Styrofoam cup. Teams of students must agree on a design for the robot arm and identify what materials will be used. Students will draw a sketch of their agreed upon design prior to construction. Resulting robot arms are then tested and checked for range of motion and satisfaction of the given criteria.
Medical Robotics Laboratory for Biomedical Engineers
The increasing role of technology in the delivery of healthcare services has necessitated the training of engineers with complimentary background in engineering and health sciences. In response to this demand, universities and educational institutions around the globe are beginning to create undergraduate programs in biomedical engineering and developing new curriculums to support such programs. Medical Robotics is a Level 4 compulsory course in McMaster University’s Electrical and Biomedical Engineering program. This paper provides an overview of a laboratory component which has been co-developed by McMaster University and Quanser Consulting Inc. for this course. First, the motivations for introducing a Medical Robotics course into the Biomedical Engineering curriculum and the desired learning outcomes pursued by the proposed laboratory experiments are discussed. These are followed by a brief introduction of the hardware/software system used in the lab as well as detailed descriptions of four experiments developed to achieve the learning objectives.
The Artificial Perception Laboratory
The University of Toronto's Artificial Perception Lab investigates the theory, implementation, and application of multi-sensor information systems. The lab's research addresses microphone arrays, camera arrays, sensor networks, Multi-Sensor Information Systems, and applications for human-computer interactions and robotics. The Projects section provides abstracts of the lab's work, along with photos and diagrams and links to additional information and program source code for related projects. Several research articles are posted online, along with links to media coverage the lab has received.
The Living Skeleton: A Tour of Human Bones
Access Excellence at the National Health Museum provides this website as an educational tool for learning about the human body. X-ray images and bone photos of the human skeleton are organized into eight body area categories, viewable with or without explanatory labels. Both normal bones and those having fractures or other medical conditions are included, along with links to explanations of some of the conditions. The site may be useful to those studying medicine, anatomy, or anyone who is interested in images of the human body.

AMSER Science Reader Monthly is published by Internet Scout at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in conjunction with the National Science Digital Library with funding from the National Science Foundation. If you have questions or suggestions please e-mail us at