Nature’s Mechanics

By Mary Alice Hartsock

It’s Monday morning, and Peter Taddeo and Jon Bry have been waiting patiently for my call. In their fourth year of mechanical engineering studies at Drexel University, Taddeo and Bry are pros at answering my questions; I get the feeling that they’ve done this a hundred times before, even though I know that can’t be true. They are polished, professional, and enthusiastic. They know they have a good idea, and they are running with it.

That’s exactly the point of MEM435, the required mechanical engineering design course that matches upper-level students like Taddeo, Bry, and their colleagues, Cameron Dye and Raymond Seibert, with clients from science museums. The students are assigned to use formal engineering design methodology to create a product that will teach biology and engineering to kids. Academy educators Mike Kaczmarczik and Mariah Romaninsky are their clients.

[color-box color=”yellow”]Biology evolved for millions of years, and if a specific mechanism worked in nature, it can serve as a great inspiration to improve engineered products. By merging the common principles in biology and engineering, the educational tools for K to 12 kids can become more engaging and hands-on. ~Deeksha Seth, Drexel University Graduate Instructor[/color-box]

Engineering Students
Jon Bry, Peter Taddeo, Ray Seibert, Cameron Dye

As representatives of the Academy, Kaczmarczik and Romaninsky requested an educational tool that would demonstrate the adaptations of reptiles. The students responded with a model of a snake jaw, which visitors can handle as they learn about the coordination required for a snake to take a bite.

“The vision is to apply knowledge of engineering and biological systems to the creation of the product,” says Deeksha Seth, Drexel graduate student and instructor for the engineering design course. “Biology evolved for millions of years, and if a specific mechanism worked in nature, it can serve as a great inspiration to improve engineered products. By merging the common principles in biology and engineering, the educational tools for K to 12 kids can become more engaging and hands-on.”

The Coursework

Two skull models
The 3-D printed phython skull on the right is an enlarged copy of a smaller skull (left) from the Academy’s education collection.

At first, the jump from nature to computer may seem like a leap, and this way of thinking certainly takes students out of their comfort zones. The course has forced Taddeo, Bry, and their colleagues to think about engineering in an entirely different way. Never before have they been asked to work so closely with a client—especially not one in the biological sciences.

“A lot of work at Drexel is very theoretical,” Bry says, “and this class gives us a chance to apply what we’ve learned.”

When Seth’s advisor, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics James Tangorra, PhD, designed the course, his goal was for the class to fill these gaps. He based the coursework on his own research, which focuses on applying system-level engineering techniques to biological systems. He then decided to match students with science-based organizations to create custom bio-inspired designs.

“The students get exposure to someone [in this case, the museum client] who doesn’t speak their language,” says Seth, who took over as instructor when Tangorra went on sabbatical. “They are encouraged to take a step back and focus on the purpose of their work.”

At the start of the academic quarter, the students meet with their clients to learn about their needs. The pupils conduct in-depth research and present their initial designs, and their museum mentors provide feedback and assistance to help the students develop physical prototypes.

Some students choose to continue their work in an independent study, and that’s exactly what Taddeo, Bry, Dye, and Seibert have done, with limited funding support from the Academy. When they are finished, the Academy will receive instructions for building their snake jaw, as well as a list of all parts needed. The students are building a hands-on model for display, which could be installed in one of the Academy’s galleries if funding becomes available.

The Jaw

When you think about their assignment, you realize why some fourth-year and even fifth-year students are nervous as they begin the course. For the snake jaw project, Taddeo, Bry, Dye, and Seibert were asked to create a tool to explain reptile feeding, and the rest was up to them. They talked with Academy staff about their needs, inquired about what images kids associate with the word “reptile,” and educated themselves about reptile movement.

Snake Jaw Model Prototype
This prototype helped the students test the function and connections of the movable jaw.
Computer Generated Model
Drexel student Ray Seibert created this virtual snake jaw model before the team designed a hands-on tool for use in the museum. The computer-generated image helped the students to assess the jaw’s functionality and make adjustments before they began building their physical product.

Their original design showed the delicate process in which snakes walk their bodies over food using skeletal and muscular systems in their necks and jaws. They used balloons to demonstrate the muscle movements that prompt a snake to open its jaw.

Final Model of Snake Jaw
Equipped for display in the museum, this model features silver knobs that control movement of each side of the jaw. A fifth knob in the rear allows side to side movement of the entire skull. To enable jaw movement, spools of line inside the base connect to the knobs, run through the “neck,” and connect to anchor points at the back of the skull.

This was cool, but it was complicated, says Kaczmarczik. He helped the students reel in their original design by explaining exactly how kids might play with the product. They assessed how to make the model safe (Should teeth be included?) and effective (How would it be positioned so that kids could play with it while other visitors could see it working?).

Now it’s a streamlined skeletal system made up of wires and knobs, which shows how the jaw opens, loses, and moves from side to side. It fits perfectly on the Drexel student Academy’s Carts of Curiosity, so it should be fairly simple to install and share with museum visitors.

Making it Happen

The snake jaw team wasn’t the only group to go above and beyond to create a product for use in the Academy. Another group of students has been working on Hungry, Hungry Finches, in which birds with interchangeable beaks work to move different foods from troughs into their “stomachs.” The game, which could potentially fit in a space such as Outside In, the Academy’s discovery center for children, displays the concept of adaptation by natural selection in action.

Seth notes that while other universities may have similar models, she isn’t aware of any other required courses that position museums as “customers” for undergraduate engineers. With additional funding, more students could complete independent studies and carry their projects into their senior research, and they could build and install the custom-made products in their clients’ museums.

Despite the commitment and effort required to succeed in this challenging engineering design course, Seth and the students don’t see interest dying down anytime soon. The work that comes out of the course gives the students something to put on their resumes, and they say the potential that they might obtain a patent for their work is enticing.

Aware of the potential benefits of having a museum partner, the snake jaw group decided to “double down” rather than coast through the required coursework.

“We’re really grateful for the opportunity to apply what we learned at Drexel to a real-world product,” says Bry.

This article was originally published in the fall 2015 issue of Academy Frontiers. Images by Deeksha Seth, Mike Kaczmarczik, and Ray Seibert.

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