Last summer, Harvard researchers made headlines when they designed the world’s first soft-bodied silicon robot. Without cords, wires, or batteries, the adorable “octobot” uses a chemical reaction to move its eight flexible arms.
DynaMath caught up with Michael Wehner, an octobot designer and engineer at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Wehner used math to conceptualize, design, and build the bot from start to finish. “Just about everything we do every day involves math,” he says. And he’s not just talking about his work in the science lab!
We asked Wehner to tell us a little bit about what he does and how math makes a difference in his work. Use his answers and the questions below to discuss math-related careers with your students.
Check out our March engineering issue!
Want to get students even more fired up about math and engineering? Check out our March engineering issue and our free Why Math Rocks video with amusement park engineers at Universal Orlando Resort in Florida. Both show exciting real-world STEM careers in action!
What do you do in your job as an engineer?
I design and build things that can be better versions of existing things. Or I make completely new and different things, like a soft robot or a human exoskeleton.
How does math relate to your work?
I use a lot of mental math every day. Often it’s the same math that elementary students do, like adding fractions or measurements in my head. I’m usually doing this math to make calculations for mixing chemicals. If something is more complicated, I’ll use a pencil and paper or a calculator. When I design something on the computer, all of that is math. I don’t have to do the math myself, but everything the computer is doing is math.
Beyond your work, where do you find math in the real world?
Math is everywhere, even if you don’t know it. Think about eating an apple, for example. It took math to grow that apple, transport it, and make it available to purchase. Cell phones and computers also rely heavily on math. You couldn’t text your friends without math converting your text into a long mathematical code, sending it to a satellite in space, and then back down to your friend’s phone. Math is all around you as you walk down the sidewalk. It even took a lot of math to make that sidewalk! I find that fascinating.
What would you tell a student that struggles with math?
Stick with math. It might seem hard now, but that means you’re learning. You’re going to find that math provides a lot of opportunities.
Questions to use in a student discussion:
1) Based on what the engineer said about math, how would you describe his feelings about the subject?
2) What do you think is the most interesting part about octobot? (Possible answers include its soft arms, that it is wireless, that it works because of a chemical reaction)
3) Think about jobs you might be interested in when you grow up. Do those jobs involve math? Explain.
How do you talk about STEM with your students? Do you have ideas to share? If so, we’d love to hear them! E-mail us anytime.
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