Summer Camp Week 4: Worms vs. Robots

For the last week of summer camp, we partnered with Bio Bus and the Kiss Institute of Robotics to put together a biomimicry summer camp week in which middle school students would learn all about soil-dwelling nematodes (very small worms), study their activity in different circumstances, and then program robots to mimic their behavior. Biomimicry (designing machines that work like biological systems) is a hot topic in engineering these days and we wanted to give students the chance to participate.

Sara from Bio Bus introduced us to nematodes—she brought several worm colonies in petri dishes for each group to study.

From Iridescent NYC – Worms vs Robots summer camp

Omar and Allie, our NYU-Poly engineering student instructors, introduced us to programming logic by hilariously “processing” student-generated instructions to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

From Iridescent NYC – Worms vs Robots summer camp

Students learned the basic syntax and logic of “C” programming, and experimented with hacking sample code modules that Omar and Izzy had prepared. The KISS Institute of Robotics loaned us some iRobot Create hobby robots, some control units, and some other gear. So students got to see the changes in their code immediately, and tangibly, demonstrated.

From Iridescent NYC – Worms vs Robots summer camp

We split the groups into teams. One team would study worm behavior and track movements in different environmental conditions, the other would begin to program robots to mirror these behaviors. The two teams would be fluid; members could switch back and forth as they wanted.

From Iridescent NYC – Worms vs Robots summer camp

Worm teams observed the worms with microscopes under different conditions including: absent of food, starvation (no food for some time), sudden introduction of food, feeding, and post-feeding. They used a computer graphical tracking software to measure speed and analyze movement. The worm teams’ goal was to create a detailed profile of worm activity in ‘seeking’ and ‘feeding’ modes, and to tell the programming team what the robot should do.

From Iridescent NYC – Worms vs Robots summer camp

The programming teams had quite a challenge: get the robots working like worms—searching for “food”, identify “food” (in our case, colored squares of paper), “feed” (collecting paper squares), and, once food is consumed, return to searching.

From Iridescent NYC – Worms vs Robots summer camp

Programming teams got the robots moving in a worm-like wiggle based on the speed and shape of nematode movements measured by the worm team…

From Iridescent NYC – Worms vs Robots summer camp

added and programmed color-sensing cameras…

From Iridescent NYC – Worms vs Robots summer camp

used servo motors to design devices to collect the “food”…

From Iridescent NYC – Worms vs Robots summer camp

tested, optimized…

From Iridescent NYC – Worms vs Robots summer camp

tested and optimized (and tested and optimized)…..

From Iridescent NYC – Worms vs Robots summer camp

Finally, the big competition. Teams would get 5 rounds, 1 minute per round, to pick up as many squares as they could. Robots could not be touched during the round (Shout out to Bobby for setting up the worm theater competition backdrop!!!).

From Iridescent NYC – Worms vs Robots summer camp

Success! Take that, nature!

From Iridescent NYC – Worms vs Robots summer camp

Thanks to all our sponsors, partners, friends, contributors, co-conspirators, instructors, and students for an awesome summer!

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