Students in Penn’s Biomechatronics Course Create Robotic Hands for Their Final Project

by Sophie Burkholder

Andrew Chan (left, M.S.E. in Robotics ‘19) and Omar Abdoun (right, BE M.D./Ph.D. student) present “Cryogripper”

Almost every engineering school in the country offers a course in mechatronics — the overlap of mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering in electromechanical system design — but how many offer a course in biomechatronics? Taught by LeAnn Dourte, Ph.D., a Practice Associate Professor in Bioengineering, Penn Engineering’s Biomechatronics course (BE 570) gives students the chance to think about how the principles of mechatronic design can be used in biological settings involving orthopaedics, cardiovascular systems, and respiration, to name a few.

Throughout the course, students engage in different projects related to circuitry, signal processing, mechanics, motors, and analog controls, eventually applying all of these to biological examples before working on a final culminating project in design teams of two. In a simulation meant to mimic the sort of thinking and design processes that go behind innovations in robotic surgery, students create an electromechanical device that acts as a robotic hand. The catch? The “hand” has to have enough dexterity to pick up a water bead with a slipperiness similar to that of human tissue.

In addition to successfully performing this mechanical task using skills that the students learned throughout the semester, design teams also have to incorporate biological interfaces into the final project, such as using EMG signals to move part of the robotic hand, to give one example. Furthermore, each team needs to have a unique element to their design, whether in the use of a second biological interface, the application of Bluetooth to the system, or even a physical extension of the robotic hand to include the electromechanical equivalents of a shoulder, elbow, or wrist joint.

Carolyn Godone and Mike Furr (both M.S.E. in Bioengineering ‘19) model their design

Students Carolyn Godone and Mike Furr (both M.S.E. in Bioengineering ‘19) created a design inspired by the mechanical iris of a camera lens, using gears to push 3-D printed slices together in a symmetrical pattern to close around an object for pickup. They controlled their unique gripper with a thermal sensing camera that could employ a heat map of the device’s user to rotate, raise, and lower the gripper. Another pair of students, Omar Abdoun (BE M.D./Ph.D. student) and Andrew Chan (M.S.E. in Robotics ‘19), made what they called a “cryogripper”: a tissue moistened with water that freezes on demand when it contacts its target hydrogel. The ice allows the target to be lifted without falling, and the tissue can later be thawed with pumps of warm water to release hydrogel.

After weeks of working on their projects in the George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory and Bio-MakerSpace, the class presented their final robotic hands during an open demonstration day (or Demo Day) in the lab. To see all the devices live and in action, watch the Facebook video below!

Dr. LeAnn Dourte Appointed Practice Associate Professor

LeAnn Dourte, Ph.D.

The Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania would like to congratulate LeAnn Dourte, Ph.D. on her recent promotion to Practice Associate Professor. Formerly a Senior Lecturer, this promotion reflects Dr. Dourte’s innovative approaches to pedagogy since arriving at Penn in 2011. The title of Practice Associate Professor reflects exceptional accomplishment in teaching, leadership, and educational programs. As an official member of the faculty, this formalizes Dourte’s role as a leader in pedagogy and educational scholarship, furthering empowering her to think creatively and progressively about higher education.

As a key member of the BE teaching faculty, Dourte has regularly taught core undergraduate subjects such as Intro to Biomechanics (BE 200) and Biomaterials (BE 220) as well as popular graduate electives Biomechanics and Biotransport (BE 510) and Biomechatronics (BE 570). In particular, she spearheaded the department’s initiative to improve classroom and learning experiences through experimentation with the Structured, Active, In-Class Learning (or SAIL) model of education which emphasizes teamwork and dynamic problem-solving. Dourte worked with the Center for Teaching and Learning to understand this model and assess how it would best be applicable for BE students, and then presented her findings at national conferences and to the BE faculty, helping to introduce them to these techniques and advise them on best practices. Other BE faculty such as Chris Fang-Yen, Ph.D., Jennifer Philips-Cremins, Ph.D., and Danielle Bassett, Ph.D., have experimented with and incorporated these ideas into their courses. Thanks to Dourte’s efforts, BE has been integral in demonstrating the success of SAIL classes to the School of Engineering and then spreading this philosophy to other schools at Penn. In addition to her pedagogical interests, Dourte is also highly involved in the Department’s student wellness initiative, serving on the Department’s Climate Committee and as the Wellness Ambassador.

Now that she has achieved this latest milestone, Dourte has set her sights on goals for the future. She intends to work with Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Dr. Russ Composto to strengthen initiatives to assist SEAS’s First-Generation, Low-Income (FGLI) students. She will be working with Dr. Bassett, who specializes in network science, to learn more about how students learn, and what tools can be developed to assess students in addition to traditional exams and homework; to tell more easily when students are missing key concepts; and to intervene sooner in moments of crisis. And finally, Dourte will also be one of three representatives from Penn at an upcoming national education summit this May to discuss the future of Bioengineering curricula.

“Our best educators are teachers for the rest of the faculty, as well as the students,” says Department Chair Dr. David Meaney. “We are enormously proud of the prestige and expertise that LeAnn shares with all of us. I was fortunate to teach biomechanics with LeAnn for many years, and saw her outstanding ability as an educator in person.”

Once again, we would like to extend hearty congratulations to Dr. Dourte on this well-deserved recognition of her leadership and both in and out of the classroom.

Double Shelix Interviews LeAnn Dourte

LeAnn Dourte
LeAnn Dourte, Ph.D.

This interview with Dr. LeAnn Dourte is a collaboration between Double Shelix and the University of Pennsylvania Department of Bioengineering! Thanks to Kayla and Sally for conducingt this interview! If there’s someone else at UPenn BioE (or elsewhere!) that you think they should feature, let them know!

Research findings from LeAnn’s SAIL studies:
LeAnn’s biomechatronics students make robotic arms:
UPenn Center for Teaching and Learning:
Who should we interview next? Let us know: