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York College student sparking kids’ interest in science, one robot claw at a time

June 25, 2019
John Doherty works with students during First Friday event.
John Doherty '20 demonstrates to children how the brain works.

John Doherty faced some stiff competition for kids’ attention at a recent First Friday in downtown York.

Sure, he had a robot claw, but there was a magic show about to start on the other side of Central Market.

John had the upper hand in one big way, though.

A magician won’t share the secrets, he told the kids, but I’ll tell you how all this works.

Sparking an interest

John’s station was called robots and brains. It was one of six booths staffed by York College of Pennsylvania student volunteers at the Brain Fair during First Friday designed to get kids interested in science and biology.

“The idea is to spark an interest in kids’ minds about neuroscience or science in general,” John says.

John genuinely enjoys helping others in the classroom, and he tutors other students in chemistry in his spare time. So, when his anatomy teacher and organizer of the brain fair, Dr. Sean Georgi, asked for volunteers, John immediately knew he wanted to be involved.

Robots and brains

Project-based learning is a huge part of the curriculum at York College. As a Biology major on a Pre-Med track, John has experienced the importance of that kind of hands-on learning throughout his three years of college.

“When you actually get to do something that involves the topic that you’re studying, it definitely sticks more in your brain,” he says. “It makes it more tangible and exciting because you’re not just in that theoretical realm — you get to see that what you’re doing is real.”

That was part of the idea behind the station John ran at the Brain Fair.

John had three sensors that he would attach to a kid’s forearm. First, he’d hook those sensors up to an iPad. The sensors were able to detect electrical signals sent from the brain into the kid’s arm. As the kids moved their fingers, the sensors detected the electrical signals and displayed them as waves on the iPad screen.

That tended to make the kids’ eyes light up in excitement.

Then came the real fun.

John had a robot claw to hook up to the sensors. As the kids moved their hands, the sensors relayed the message to the claw and it, too, moved.

When they squeezed their hands, the robot claw squeezed. When they let go, so did the claw.

It’s the same kind of technology used in developing new prosthetics. And it was mind-blowing for these kids.

“They would have played with that for hours if I let them,” John says.

Sharing the information

John’s planning to go to medical school after he graduates from York College. He thinks he might want to be a surgeon — he’s fascinated by how our bodies work.

“The human body is so much more complicated than it appears at face value,” he says. “It’s fun to learn about what makes me work.”

But being able to share that information with others, he says, that’s 10 times more valuable.

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