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Partner Highlight: BIG nano Experiences at the South Dakota Discovery Center

Christina Akers

The South Dakota Discovery Center (SDDC) has always promoted cutting edge science and supported youth in their community. Currently touring the Nano mini-exhibit to schools and libraries throughout the Dakotas, SDDC works hard to bring their programming to students in underrepresented areas. Earlier this year, SDDC helped a local elementary/middle school robotics team achieve great success at the FIRST LEGO League State Tournament in Sioux Falls, SD.

Using nanotechnology, the TechnoKids Lego Robotics team wished to develop a concept for Muscle Assist Clothing to help improve mobility for senior citizens. This idea was prompted by the 2012-13 competition’s theme "Senior Solutions." In addition to building and programming a robot, the teams had to research and propose a solution to a problem within the theme. For the task, the TechnoKids interviewed senior citizens about the difficulties they faced with mobility as they aged. Based on interviews, the team developed the idea for a pair of pants that would use carbon nanotubes and sensors to stimulate muscles in elderly individuals who needed assistance walking or standing up.

After they had formulated the idea, SDDC Executive Director Kristie Maher connected the team to Dr. Ilia Ivanov, a research and development scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. "They got to have a meeting with the scientist in a similar fashion that an adult with a proposed product would" said Maher. "The kids got to explain their pants to Dr. Ivanov. He was able to explain to them about current research that is related to their project.  He helped them answer questions about pricing and brought up concepts such as assuring that the nanotubes cannot get into people’s skin. It was fantastic!"

The TechnoKids learned that their concept was theoretically doable based upon current research being done at the lab to create fabric with embedded sensors and ultrathin fabrics. They then built a robot equipped with two light sensors, two color sensors and contained approximately 320 parts, plus six attachments to navigate and perform the required robot missions to achieve their goals of mobility assistance.  They named their robot Grandpa Joebot, and won Best Robot Design award at the State Tournament!

The team’s participation in FIRST Lego League was supported by the South Dakota Discovery Center and funded through a Healthy Communities/Healthy Youth Turner grant. The FIRST Robotics season begins in September of each year, but SDDC offers many programs with an emphasis on building and robotics all year long. For more information about these programs or the winning FIRST LEGO League team, contact Executive Director, Kristie Maher.