Russell's Blog

New. Improved. Stays crunchy in milk.

Teaching, week 2

Posted by Russell on January 28, 2012 at 1:50 a.m.
For reasons I don't fully comprehend myself, I decided it would be perfectly normal and reasonable to invent a class in a peculiar new topic, and then try to convince the University to let me offer it as a course. To my surprise (and horror), they let me do it. Thus was born Robotics for Laboratory Applications, under the auspices of UC Davis Biomedical Engineering and the good graces of Marc Facciotti.

Seven students signed up. Two of them I already knew because were on the UC Davis iGEM team, which shared our laboratory space during the year they worked on the project that won them Best Foundational Advance. I'm still getting to know the other five, but so far I'm impressed with them. UC Davis has some pretty brilliant undergraduates.

This is my first time teaching in an official (although perhaps not quite formal) capacity, and it's kind of interesting to see how things look from the other side. When a professor distributes a handout, for example, it doesn't seem like a big deal. However, it's kind of surprising how long it takes to print, collate and staple seven copies of everything. I definitely underestimated that today, and barely had their safety information sheets and IT policy documents ready in time. OK, I didn't have them ready in time, but fortunately one of the students hadn't finished eating his lunch, and this gave me an excuse to disappear for a minute.

The purpose of the class is to design a "minimally invasive" extension for our 3D printer that will allow us to use it as a general purpose laboratory robot. Friday's class was devoted to narrowing down the scope of the project to focus on a single function. We kicked around a lot of cool ideas, but didn't quite settle on a single one yet. I've set next Friday as the deadline for reaching a consensus.

One of the functions we might implement is a pipetting robot. We were wondering how well this would work. Just to illustrate the idea, I suggested they just give it a try.

Yes, that is just a pipetter taped to the hot end of our 3D printer. With two pieces of masking tape. To our surprise, I was able to maneuver the pipetter into a tip, seat the tip and position it over a small bottle-cap full of water. Operating the plunger manually, it worked.

We were not at all expecting to be able to get a good seal between the pipetter and the tip, but it worked just fine. I tried it a couple of times after the class, with different tips and pipetters, and didn't have any problem. Very encouraging, in terms of feasibility.

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