Bringing Science to Life

Sometimes the best ideas come from the brainstorms we have when talking with friends. When crazy ideas spark real innovation in learning, it’s a win-win for everyone involved.

Students at Latin School of Chicago, an independent day school for preK-grade 12 students on Chicago’s north side, learned this first-hand through innovative project-based learning under science teacher Wayne Wheatley.

New to Latin in 2017, Wheatley was eager to incorporate engineering and technology into the seventh-grade science curriculum. His students primarily were studying anatomy and biology and Wheatley was looking for a way to blend the scientific disciplines and bring the subject matter to life.

“I was talking to a friend about it, and I jokingly said, ‘Maybe I can have them make a robotic hand,’” Wheatley says. He realized that building a robot would, in fact, be a great way for students to learn how muscles, tendons and bones work together. “A lightbulb went off in my head as I thought, ‘Wait, I think I could do that.’”

Wheatley’s lightbulb moment became a reality, thanks to professional development opportunities and resources. He joined an innovative project design committee and met with a small group of teachers once a month to plan out the details for the project. He also used online project-based learning resources and employed design thinking strategies to create this unit.

After learning how the skeletal and muscular systems work together to create movement in the human body, teams of seventh-grade students were given the challenge of creating a robotic version of a human hand.

Using any materials that their groups requested, they had three weeks to design, prototype, redesign and test out their hands before a panel of guest judges.

To get feedback and advice, students consulted with prosthetists from Chicago-based Bionic Prosthetics and Orthotics and with an orthopedic surgeon. They also video chatted with a biomedical engineer. They reflected on the design process, the valuable lessons they learned and the teamwork skills that were necessary in order to meet this challenge.

The variety of robotic hands the students designed and built ranged from simple cardboard replicas – complete with stick-on fingernails – to mechanical hands animated by computing platforms that can create movement from input or powered by servomotors and Arduino microprocessors.

Wheatley says his favorite part about the project was the creativity the students displayed in their designs. Because they had complete design freedom, they developed projects that ranged from simple and elegant to highly complex.

Students not only learned about muscles, tendons and bones, but also about how to use a drill, how to program a servo and – perhaps most importantly – how to learn from their mistakes in order to make a prototype better.

“It’s important for students to learn how to research and collaborate and solve problems faced in the real world,” Wheatley says.

Learn more about Latin School of Chicago at

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