Science of innovation: bionic limbs

Image of HULC courtesy of Robert E. Kennedy LibraryLook to the “Science of Innovation” video series from the team of NSTA, NBC Learn, and NSF to jump start your STEM efforts. These videos are sparked by innovative technologies issued patents by the United States Patent & Trademark Office. Use them to expose your students to the innovation process.

“Science of Innovation: Bionic Limbs” highlights how inspiration plays a key role in innovation. All innovations begin with an idea, a thought, a research question, a “What if…?” In this case, the inspiration was the actions of humanoid robots and the idea that the technology could be adapted to help paraplegics “walk.”

NSTA’s efforts on the development team center around providing lesson plans that enable you to make the videos a focus of your instruction or to integrate them in your current plans as STEM in action. Each video connects to two lesson plans—one that illustrates the practice of engineering through design and a second that illustrates the practice of science through inquiry. With these two forms, STEM teachers will be able to compare the practices side-by-side and use the version that best meets their needs.

Why the distinction? The practices of science and engineering are distinctly different. The videos of the Science of Innovation series will aid students in realizing that science seeks an understanding of the natural world through a question about a phenomenon while engineering pursues a solution to a constrained problem through the recursive process of design. Engineers use the knowledge of science and mathematics as factors that influence the nature of a solution. In some situations, the practices of science and engineering overlap, but often they are not complimentary due their fundamental goal, process, and outcome.

We hope that the opportunity to compare and contrast the two forms in this manner you will help you better understand the unfamiliar practice of engineering and be more adept at duplicating the process authentically with your own activities. As always, we are very interested in how these work for you in real classroom situations. Let us know!

–Judy Elgin Jensen

Image of HULC courtesy of Robert E. Kennedy Library.


SOI: Bionic Limbs highlights Homayoon Kazerooni, Ph.D., a roboticist and professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley.

Lesson plans

Two versions of the lesson plans help students build background and develop questions they can explore how innovation is rooted in observations of problems around us. Both include strategies to support students in their own quest for answers and strategies for a more focused approach that helps all students participate in hands-on inquiry.

SOI: Bionic Limbs, A Science Perspective models how students might investigate a question about exoskeletons, how the user might best control them, or factors that affect the usefulness of such devices.


SOI: Bionic Limbs, An Engineering Perspective models how students might investigate the muscles and bones used in a simple model of a human arm.

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