Using science for good

Alex GW Biomedical Engineering Research

In this blog post, Alex '17 shares what he learned as a summer research intern in George Washington University's (GW) Biomedical Engineering Department. Alex, who will attend Virginia Tech next fall, helped conduct an experiment that used interactive robots to teach children on the autism spectrum how to respond to different sensory stimuli.

Science has fascinated me since I was a kid and my father and I would watch TV shows like Bill Nye the Science Guy and The Most Extreme. The reason I came to Landon in third grade was for science. When I visited, I went to [Lower School science teacher] Mrs. Beth Hughes' classroom, and she had geckos and chinchillas, and I told my mother, "I want to go here." My other Landon science teachers — Mr. Jack Duquette, Ms. Vivian English, Mrs. Beverly Sivaslian, and Dr. Blair Northcott — helped solidify my interest in science.

For six weeks over the summer of 2016, I got to put my love of science into action as a research intern for Professor Chung-Hyuk Park in George Washington University's Biomedical Engineering Department. I worked on a project to research the potential of robotic therapy to help teach children who are on the autism spectrum how to react physically and emotionally to different stimuli.

We programmed emotions into a small humanoid robot called Darwin Mini, which we controlled manually using a tablet. We would then bring in a child on the autism spectrum, have the robot navigate a series of stimuli with gestures and movements that include each of the five senses — taste, touch, smell, vision and hearing — and see how the child reacted. Sometimes the child would just watch; other times the child would copy the robot. We recorded the child's movements with sensors.

Darwin Mini

We did something similar with a phone app called Romo, which is a penguin that displays facial emotions. We would introduce the child to Romo's expressions with a computer game, where the kids reacted to Romo's emotions by selecting the emotion it made them feel.

It was really fulfilling to see the children react to Romo and Darwin Mini. We found that these kids on the autism spectrum were really engaged and were able to understand the robot's behavior. The parents of one girl told me that they had never seen their daughter so happy.

The experience solidified for me that I want to major in biomedical engineering in college and will probably go for my master's in biomedical engineering. It made me realize that science is my passion, this is what I want to do in the future, and I can help people by doing it.

Alex was listed as one of the authors of a research abstract based on this work (titled "A Robotic Framework to Overcome Sensory Overload in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Pilot Study"), which was presented at GW's Research Days April 4–5.