When his seventh and eighth grade students ask Rob Alexander what he did during his summer vacation, his stories will include references to geckos, flying robots, astronauts, the International Space Station and a robotics laboratory at Stanford.
Alexander, who teaches industrial technology at Canyon Middle School in Castro Valley, California, joined the Cutkosky lab in early June under a Stanford program that provides eight-week research fellowships for science, engineering and technology teachers in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In the lab, Alexander is working alongside researchers who have designed a custom robotic gripper for NASA’s new flying robots — known as Astrobees — that are helping astronauts carry out routine tasks inside the International Space Station.
His fellowship will coincide with a momentous day for the lab — July 21, the day the Kennedy Space Center is scheduled to launch the rocket that will deliver the gripper, which uses the lab’s signature gecko-inspired adhesive, to the space station.
Alexander is one of 25 teachers participating in the Stanford Summer Research Program for Teachers, which is open to middle school, high school and community college teachers in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Under the program, which Stanford launched in 2005, the teachers meet as a group on Monday for lab tours, seminars on teaching and lectures in science and engineering taught by Stanford faculty. They spend the rest of the week working full-time in campus labs.
Academic departments in three Stanford schools — Engineering, Medicine, and Humanities and Sciences — have opened the doors of their labs to the teachers.
Each teacher is paired with a host — the lab’s principal investigator — and with a mentor, including PhD students, postdoctoral fellows and research scientists. Alexander’s mentor is Tony Chen, a second-year PhD student in mechanical engineering.
On the day Alexander arrived in the lab, Chen encouraged him to ask questions about any projects underway in the lab, whose work focuses on biomimetic engineering — robots and technologies that take inspiration from nature — and improvements to robots’ ability to interact with the physical world.
“Rob is very eager to learn and is excited about our work, which makes me really happy,” said Chen, who traces his interest in robotics to an inspiring high school teacher. “If he sees something cool going on in the lab, he’s not afraid to say, ‘Can I watch what you’re doing,’ or ‘Can you teach me how to do that?’ Everyone is enjoying his presence.”
At the beginning of the summer, Alexander learned how to use the same powerful computer-aided design platform that researchers use in the lab. Then, he used the program to create virtual simulations of custom robotic grippers for Chen.
He also learned how to make the lab’s gecko-inspired adhesive, a process he illustrated with photographs on the lab’s blog where he is writing about his experiences, titled “SummerGeckoRob.”
All in all, it’s been an exhilarating experience for Alexander, who described the program as “an injection of lifeblood” for teachers.
“I come away with new ideas and inspiration on a daily basis,” he said during a recent interview in the lab’s conference room. “I’m excited about being here, but I’m starting to think about getting back to school now. I want to start implementing what I’ve learned.”
Alexander is eager to introduce the eighth-grade students in his Advanced Creative Design class to the concept of biomimicry. He has developed a new hands-on challenge for them: take inspiration from the structural design of an object in nature and build the tallest towers — out of wood craft sticks — capable of holding weights ranging from one to three pounds.
Wherever he goes on campus, he’s on the lookout for things that he hopes will inspire his students.
“I’ve been taking lots of pictures of the facilities, including the Product Realization Lab and the Rapid Prototyping Room,” he said. “My students are going to be so excited because they’ll recognize familiar things, such as the drill press, but they’ll also see the next level of equipment. I’m taking video of the 3D printer in action, which they’ve never seen.”
Alexander has also been taking photographs of researchers using their engineering notebooks, which are filled with notes, data and sketches.
“I’ve been trying to instill in my students the importance of keeping a notebook to keep track of their projects,” he said. “Now my students will see that in action. They’ll see that this is what engineers do.”