A professor in the department of mechanical engineering, Dr. Anurag Purwar, recently earned a $225,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for developing an educational robotics kit for young students. The grant falls under the category of Small Business Innovation Research, or SBIR, which was awarded to Purwar’s start-up company, Mechanismic Inc.
The kit, called “SnappyXO,” aims to inspire elementary, middle and high schoolers to explore creative learning in the field of robotics and mechanical design. Purwar said that existing robotics kits like LEGO and VEX Robotics are well-established and successful, but have certain limitations that SnappyXO will try to overcome.
“Today’s kits have a large number of parts, but when you look at them, you cannot really ascertain what their exact function is just by looking at them,” Purwar said. “You always have to refer to a manual to build the kit.”
With SnappyXO, that is not the case. Each kit comes with a selection of parts that is “sufficient in number to build the design, but no more than that,” Purwar said.
The different parts include flat surfaces and plates as well as a variety of connectors that are used to achieve whatever motion constraint is required. The different types of connectors can help to achieve perpendicular, parallel and angular connections.
Purwar said the varying types of connectors make the kit versatile and allow for open architecture; this means that a person could buy off-the-shelf electronic components and mount them on the parts with ease. Examples include the popular microcontroller Arduino, as well as motors and sensors.
Right now, these kits are in the “Customer Discovery” stage. In this stage, the aim is to visit schools on Long Island and conduct workshops where these kits are introduced to students. They are taught the necessary fundamentals and are given a chance to implement their own creativity by interacting with the kit.
One of Purwar’s former students, Agranya Jampala, acts as the chief operating officer of Mechanismic Inc., and is one of the people responsible for conducting the workshops. He interacts with the students during these workshops and hackathons and observes the impact that is created.
“These kits are proving to be a really good tool for children to learn basic robotics,” Jampala said. “Not only that, SnappyXO also offers the chance to physically realize and rapidly prototype your imagination and build the product in your head with your hands.”
The name is peculiar to hear, but Purwar says it is elegant in its simplicity.
“The parts have holes in them, which are either in an “X” shape or an “O” shape, and all the parts snap into place. Hence the name, ‘SnappyXO,’” he said.
Purwar was inspired to create SnappyXO after building similar kits with his own son. He said he wanted to come up with a way to simplify these kits and make them easier for kids to use.
Purwar’s idea goes beyond just the physical kit. He also developed a software called “MotionGen,” which enables users to simulate mechanical linkages and systems virtually. With SnappyXO, you can use the developed robot along with MotionGen to simulate and analyze the behavior. You can take a snapshot of the robot, draw on it on the software and then superimpose both to compare results.
He pointed out that the parts in SnappyXO kits are relatively thinner than existing kits on the market, and that they’re safe for kids to use. “Stepping on them won’t hurt as much as a LEGO piece would,” he added half-jokingly.
With the distinct advantages of having only the bare minimum parts, being flexible with custom electronics and being relatively safer, Purwar aims to continue his efforts in developing and promoting SnappyXO.
“SnappyXO can be a potential solution for universalizing STEM education in the classroom and outside,” Barry Chuang, the chief technological officer of Mechanismic Inc. and SnappyXO’s principal investigator, said.