Neuroscientist's idea wins new-toy award

April 15, 2014

When he was a child, Robijanto Soetedjo used to play with his electrically powered toys for a while and then, when he got bored, take them apart - much to the consternation of his parents.

That curiosity about how things worked led him to a career in medicine and neurophysiology, where he explores how the brain processes electrical signals.

Last week, the University of Washington neuroscientist could start calling himself a budding toy designer, after taking second place in a national competition to create a toy that could inspire a future generation of scientists.

Soetedjo's bioelectricity toy set allows children to measure the electrical signals created by a working muscle, and use that energy to power a light, a fan, a robotic claw or any other kind of small motor.

"The judges were really impressed with the creativity of his entry," said Janet Coffey, program officer for the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. "You could imagine kids playing with it - it was very accessible."

The competition was sponsored by the Moore Foundation - founded by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore - and the nonprofit Society for Science & the Public. It was inspired by the legacy of childhood chemistry sets, which once captivated young scientists but also contained dangerous chemicals that are no longer permitted.

Old-style toy chemistry sets often contained cyanide, lead and the ingredients used to make gunpowder; in the 1950s, they even included uranium. Those ingredients could poison, explode or cause cancer.

But they were also a lot of fun. When he was growing up, in Indonesia, Soetedjo had a chemistry set that could create small explosions.

"These were open-ended discovery toys," Coffey said. "You could explore, mess around - that's really the spirit of what we were trying to get at, this playful discovery that is at the heart of what is science."

Soetedjo's prototype toy uses off-the-shelf components that allow children (and adults) to visualize the effects of electrical signals produced by muscles. The kit uses electrodes taped to the body to pick up a muscle's , then runs that signal through a filter to isolate it from interference, and amplifies it to make it stronger.

A child using the kit can make certain things - like a robotic claw or a light - move or turn on and off just by squeezing and relaxing a muscle. A meter measures the amount of electricity, and a speaker attached to the kit crackles to make it audible.

"This is a simple idea," Soetedjo said. "It should not be that difficult" to make it into a toy.

Not only does his prototype have a gee-whiz factor, it's also teaching about neuroscience - a hot topic that's the source of much scientific research today, though rarely the focus of an interactive children's toy.

Soetedjo came up with the bioelectricity toy set idea a few years ago, when he was trying to explain his research to his children, now 7 and 13. He created the kit that he later demonstrated at his son's elementary school.

Then he saw a poster at work advertising the Moore Foundation's competition and decided to enter.

The first-place award went to Stanford University Professor Manu Prakash and Stanford graduate student George Korir, who were inspired by the workings of a child's music box to create a prototype of a device that could be used for chemistry or biology experiments. The pair won a $50,000 prize for their work.

Soetedjo's second-place prize includes a check for $25,000, and Coffey said the foundation will pull together a team to help the winners take their concept to the next level - perhaps with educators and designers who know how to turn a concept into a toy.

She said all of the winning entries are early prototypes and have a long way to go before they can hit the market.

Soetedjo used a circuit board toy from Radio Shack, a speaker and pieces from Lego Mindstorms, a robotic kit made by Lego, to put his prototype together.

Soetedjo said that if it were developed into a toy, the kit could be used by younger students to experiment with electrical signals generated by the heart and brain, including electrical activity during sleep. It could be connected to a computer, and high-school students could use it for rudimentary neuroscience - perhaps modifying it to study the brain of a fly.

Science toys have to be cool and interactive if scientists want to woo students away from computers and tablet or phone apps, Soetedjo said - devices that are addictive but often bereft of scientific value.

And, unless you want to make your parents really mad, you can't take them apart.

"They're so delicate and hard to tinker with," agreed Rick Bates, interim CEO of Society for Science & the Public, about today's high-tech gadgets.

"That creative time - that time the kids love, to sit down and destroy something, and then rebuild it - is gone," he said.

Explore further: Inspired by a music box, Stanford bioengineer creates $5 chemistry set (w/ video)

More information: To see a video of Soetedjo's bioelectricity toy kit and some of the other winners, go to: … /spark/video-gallery

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