Alumni profile: Ben Finio, Ph.D. ’12

Wednesday, June 19, 2019 - 11:15am

This roboticist-turned-educator is helping kids ramp up their science fair game

While he was a graduate student, Ben Finio was asked to give a lab tour to a group of advanced high school students who were interested in robotics research. He agreed, and looked forward to showcasing the technical aspects of his work.

“But due to a scheduling mix-up, the tour group was actually inner city middle school students who had no experience with engineering or robotics,” he said. “I had absolutely no idea how to relate to them or communicate with these kids effectively on a level they could understand. Literally, the first question I got was, ‘do you make Xbox games here?’”

Finio fumbled through an improvised tour and breathed a sigh of relief when the group finally left the lab.

A year later, he worked up the courage to try again. Finio spoke to a middle school class about robotics, and with more time to prepare, developed a fun, multimedia presentation.

“They were completely captivated,” said Finio, who earned a mechanical engineering Ph.D. in 2012 from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. “That was when the light bulb went off for me. We held an entire cafeteria full of sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders captivated for 45 minutes and, when the presentation was over, all their hands shot up. I saw that, if done properly, kids think this research is awesome and there is a real demand for it.”

Finio gives a presentation about his lab's robotics research to a group of school children. (Photo provided by Ben Finio)

That experience started Finio on a path to his current role as STEM education content developer for Science Buddies, a nonprofit that provides a website with free science projects and STEM resources for K-12 students, as well as science lesson plans for teachers.

As a writer and content creator, Finio works on a small team of scientists from different disciplines to create articles, lesson plans, and hands-on projects with video tutorials and step-by-step instructions.

“It’s not all robotics, so I’ll sometimes branch out to do an astrophysics or a geology project,” he said. “Luckily, mechanical engineering gave me enough of a math and physics background that I can do a little research and understand those things on at least a K-12 level.”

Like much of his audience, Finio developed a curiosity about science as a child. His passion for building with LEGOs grew into an interest in math and physics that led him to pursue mechanical engineering as an undergrad at Bucknell University.

There, Finio had his first research experience. He and a professor worked to develop a pump that used compressed air to dredge the bottom of a river while preventing rocks and debris from getting stuck in the pipe.

He was hooked on research, and sought a good fit for Ph.D. studies. The “cool factor” of the flying robots being developed in the lab of Robert Wood, Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences, was too strong to pass up. But the research itself presented countless unexpected challenges.

“When you are looking at labs, you see the end results of the research—all these really cool robots doing fun stuff,” he said. “But as an undergrad, you don’t know that is the result of months of sitting at a computer, pulling your hair out, or watching the robots you’ve worked so hard to build blow up.”

Finio shared information about the Robobee during a community outreach event. (Photo provided by Ben Finio)

For his thesis, Finio studied the flight mechanics of insects to develop systems that would enable the tiny Robobee to maneuver like to the real thing. Insects flap their wings asymmetrically, he explained, but replicating that motion in a rigid robot was extremely difficult.

Compounding those challenges was the fact that, since the scale was so tiny, the process to build the robots hadn’t been perfected yet. Finio and his lab mates had to develop the tools they needed along the way.

“It’s not like you can take a power drill and a screwdriver and put these things together. To build the robots manually, there was a really big learning curve,” he said. “There were a lot of frustrating points where you’d misplace something under the microscope, or misalign something, and have to start over again, losing days or weeks of work.”

While he reveled in the ‘Eureka’ moments when he saw the fruits of his labors, he found the lab’s outreach work to be even more rewarding.

So Finio followed a non-traditional postdoctoral path, first joining a laboratory at Tufts University that was using LEGO robotics as a therapy for students with autism, and then moving to Cornell University where he developed an afterschool outreach program about soft robotics.

“The biggest challenge came down to the materials and the budget,” he said. “These were robots that were being manufactured in million dollar labs with a lot of fancy equipment. We were trying to do this with a toaster oven, plastic cups, and cafeteria trays.”

Innovating to overcome those challenges has prepared him well for his work at Science Buddies. The site offers more than 1,200 project ideas that run the gamut from behavioral science (the phenomenon of apparent motion) to microbiology (using aloe juice to protect berries from mold).

Finio with his wife, Dr. Erin Henry, and daughter, Natalie Finio. (Photo provided by Ben Finio)

Drawing on his background, he especially enjoys designing robotics projects. Among his favorites is a kit for a simple, vibrating robot that buzzes around a flat surface.

It’s the kind of project that is very engaging for a student, but requires some special materials and engineering know-how that many K-12 science teachers lack. Breaking a project down and making it accessible for a broad audience is what he enjoys the most.

The projects may be simple and fun, but inspiring children to be interested in science is important and rewarding work, he said.

“When hands-on activities are so few and far between, I don’t think it is that surprising that a lot of kids lose interest in science. You can’t wait until they are in college to engage them if you’ve lost them back in middle school,” he said. “But I don’t want everyone to be an engineer either. This is also about scientific literacy. Having a scientific mindset helps you to be a more informed citizen.”