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Seattle Times: UW Neuroscientist’s Toy Wins Prize

From our news partners at The Seattle Times: A University of Washington neuroscientist won second place in a national competition to design a great science toy.

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.

This week, the University of Washington neuroscientist can also call 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 electrical signal, 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.

Read the full story here.

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