With STEM, almost everything is possible

Colonel Geoffrey LingThe audience for Colonel Geoffrey Ling’s presentation had a treat yesterday. Ling, who is program manager for the Defense Science Office at Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), said that this conference was “the first national meeting” in which an “amazing breakthrough” would be announced. That breakthrough is a prosthetic arm that a person can control using his or her own brain—a miracle for our troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan and for others with injuries or disabilities.

Ling said DARPA was founded in the 1950s in response to Sputnik and was “set free” to work on “high-risk, high-payoff projects.” He asked teachers to share some great ideas for future science innovations, and each one they called out—such as teleportation and flying cars—may someday be possible, according to Ling, because of the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) that creates an “enabling technology. The enabling technology starts the process.”

He pointed out that many young children don’t know the meaning of “it can’t be done–in their own minds, it can be done.” Only when they grow up do they become “jaded” and closed to the possibilities. Ling says teachers need to be mindful of this and find ways to get students to expand their imaginations. “The brain is very adaptable..That’s like what teachers do [help young brains adapt].”

He also stressed the importance of student teamwork: “Always start with teams. It’s always a team [of scientists and engineers that create these innovations].” He said more than 200 scientists, engineers, physical therapists, and other experts worked on the prosthetic arm, “all inspired by [the] teachers” who taught them STEM.

Ling walked us through all of the steps taken to develop the prosthetic arm. Much of the work was accomplished using monkeys and studying their movements. The monkeys even assisted during the testing of the “remote control” of the arm. They learned how to control it by thinking about what they wanted it to do: Get it to grasp a food treat, then bring the treat to their mouths. Ling forsees that “30 years from now,” humans will drive a car by using their brains to control it. He also predicts “visual prosthetics are around the corner,” and artificial exoskeletons will enable elderly persons to regain movement. “Grandma can ski again!,” he exclaimed.

During the Q&A portion that followed, educators asked Ling about other possible STEM innovations. For each one, Ling assured them it could be done—and DARPA was working on it. The audience’s amazement and delight was palpable.

To see videos of some of the amazing work of DARPA and its partners, go to

I talked to one enthusiastic attendee about what he appreciated about Ling’s talk.

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