Syllabus: Creative Soft Robotics

IDeATe Special Topics: Creative Soft Robotics
16-480 IDeATe: Special Topics: Creative Robotics
53-399 IDeATe: Special Topics

MW 2:00-3:50PM
Hunt Library A10 (IDeATe Physical Computing Lab)
Instructor: Dr. Garth Zeglin (garthz) (pronouns: he/him/his)
IDeATe Collaborative Course
Prerequisites: none

Course Description

Soft robotics is an emerging discipline centered on actuated devices constructed from compliant materials. In this course, students will survey the state of this emerging research then design and fabricate experimental soft systems and kinetic sculptures. Students will be guided through literature search and technical paper analysis to identify opportunities and techniques. The textual study spans contemporary robotics and arts literature. The project component will be research-focused and attempt novel fabrication and design techniques. It will center on fabricating kinetic sculptures with actuators and sensors using silicone rubber cast into 3D-printed and laser-cut molds. The project sequence will culminate in the collaborative design of soft robotic systems which match technical innovation with a human need or artistic expression.

Updated for Spring 2023.

This course began with a “IDeATe: Special Topics” designation, but is now simply called “IDeATe: Creative Soft Robotics.” It will satisfy minor requirements for IDeATe Soft Technologies or IDeATe Physical Computing as a “collaborative course.”

Prerequisites and Enrollment

This course has no formal prerequisites, but students are expected to have senior-level technical skills within their own discipline. If you have any questions concerning prerequisites please contact the instructor. Total enrollment is limited to 12 students, drawn from all departments.

Detailed Description

This experimental seminar brings art and engineering together to explore robots and animate art made from soft materials. The work includes two main tracks: literature study and practical experiments. Students will research, read, present, and critique papers in the emerging field of soft robotics. Together we will identify and review kinetic art projects created on similar themes.

The experimental portion evolves from our literature study, with the aim of identifying techniques to replicate or extend toward creative goals. The objective is development of technique for creative sculptural expression using the methods of soft robotics. The final results will be collected into a final exhibition as works in progress.

This is a collaborative course exploring interdisciplinary practice at the intersection of art and robotics. This exploration is the key aim of IDeATe: we are developing practitioners who can effectively utilize their expert domain knowledge in collaboration with other disciplines. This involves developing both rigorous individual expertise as well as skill with negotiating the vocabularies of other domains. Students will be expected to learn skills from outside their home discipline and teach their own expertise, but more importantly, to develop their abilities to collaborate in diverse groups.

Learning Objectives

Upon completion of this course the students will be able to:

  1. Identify major research areas with the emerging discipline of Soft Robotics.

  2. Read and critique academic papers.

  3. Search citation indices to discover academic literature.

  4. Present academic papers and lead discussion.

  5. Identify and critique kinetic art incorporating biomimetic and soft materials.

  6. Collaborate in teams to generate, create, evaluate, and document ideas and projects.

  7. Design molds for casting silicone rubber using 3D-printing and laser-cutting.

  8. Design compliant devices incorporating fluidic actuation, tendon actuation, fluidic sensing, or conventional sensor elements.

  9. Contribute productively to a discussion and critique environment with open responses, constructive criticism, and positive feedback.

  10. Document and reflect upon processes and finished assignments.

It also incorporates the general goals of IDeATe to develop hybrid students with integrated knowledge in technology and arts. This stresses the following general skills:

  1. algorithmic and analytic thinking

  2. end-to-end execution of project concepts

  3. communication through writing, drawing, and speaking

  4. professional preparation

Grading Rubric

Everybody is assumed to start with an A in the course. If you do the work you will keep it, but failing to fulfill the expectations will cause you to drift downward. The total grade in the course will be weighted approximately 50% for exercises and projects and 50% for research, discussion, and classroom participation.

Please note also that much of the feedback on your work will come in the form of critique and commentary rather than numerical scores. Please attend to this; the commentary will be a much more substantive guide to your personal learning process than the scoring.

Each project will also include a peer evaluation component. The purpose of this element is to identify the specific contributions of each group member to the project outcome. Individual scores for a project may vary from the group score based on peer reports and instructor observations.

General Course Policies


Class participation is an important part of learning in this course and so coming to class on time is mandatory. I will take attendance at each class and three unexcused absences will cause you to lose 10% in your final grade, with an additional 10% for each successive missed class. Unexcused absences during review days will also reduce your individual project grade.

That said, there are many acceptable reasons for students to miss class, including medical needs, job interviews, or religious observances. For each absence, please notify me so we can plan alternate arrangements (in advance except for emergencies).

It is especially important at this time that no one come to class sick (see also Pandemic and Wellness). If for any reason you are not feeling well, please stay home and we’ll work out an alternative.

When in doubt, please let me and your project partners know what is going on, even if only to send a one-line email when you’re not feeling well. With some awareness we can adapt our plans; this is generally considered a good professional practice.


All assignments must be submitted by the required deadline, unless prior authorization is obtained from an instructor and documented in email. Verbal authorization is not sufficient: any verbal discussion of late submission must be documented with an emailed request and reply.

Assignments received within 24 hours of the deadline will receive half-score. Assignments received later than 24 hours will not be examined and receive zero score.

Assignments bounced for revision at the discretion of the instructor must be returned within 24 hours if not otherwise specified. This rule is meant to allow a grace period for reports which overlook a required element; please do not assume that incomplete work can be resubmitted.

However, please remember that something is always better than nothing. If the deadline is imminent, please submit whatever text, images, and drawings you can rather than do nothing. Always ask for an extension rather than silently fail to deliver.

IDeATe Facilities

The course makes use of the IDeATe fabrication facilities and labs in the lower level of Hunt Library, subject to availability and the evolving rules (see IDeATe Covid-19).

The expectation is that the IDeATe laser cutters will be available for trained students. Please see the IDeATe Laser Cutter Policies page for current details on qualification.

Currently, the 3D printers will be operating via the Skylab online portal for course-related projects.

Currently, the normal library study spaces are operating on a reservation-only system.

Please read and become familiar with the IDeATe lending and purchasing policies, which can be accessed at The IDeATe facilities are shared student resources and spaces. As such, all members of the IDeATe community are expected to be respectful of the equipment, the spaces, and fellow students and their projects. Always clean up after completing your work, put things back in their correct place, and leave the lab in better condition than you found it.

Accommodations for Students with Disabilities

If you have a disability and have an accommodations letter from the Disability Resources office, I encourage you to discuss your accommodations and needs with me as early in the semester as possible. I will work with you to ensure that accommodations are provided as appropriate. If you suspect that you may have a disability and would benefit from accommodations but are not yet registered with the Office of Disability Resources, I encourage you to contact them at

Respect for Diversity

It is my intent that students from all diverse backgrounds and perspectives be well served by this course, and that the diversity that students bring to this class be viewed as a resource, strength and benefit. It is my intent to present materials and activities that are respectful of diversity: gender, sexuality, disability, age, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, race, and culture. Your suggestions are encouraged and appreciated. Please let me know ways you see to improve equitable treatment of yourself or other students in the course so we can address these questions with clarity.

Pandemic and Wellness

Updated for Spring 2023.

If you become ill for any reason, please do not try to come to class, but let me know and we’ll discuss remote options. If you formally need to quarantine or isolate, please let me know the severity and duration and keep me up to date on changes. If you are too ill to participate even remotely, please let me know as best you can so we can discuss contingencies.

Student Health and Well-Being

Academic life can be unpredictable and potentially very stressful. Please take care of yourself. Do your best to maintain a healthy lifestyle this semester by eating well, exercising, avoiding drugs and alcohol, getting enough sleep and taking some time to relax. This will help you achieve your goals and cope with stress.

If you or anyone you know experiences any academic stress, difficult life events, or feelings like anxiety or depression, we strongly encourage you to seek support. Counseling and Psychological Services (CaPS) is here to help: call 412-268-2922 and visit Consider reaching out to a friend, faculty or family member you trust for help getting connected to the support that can help.

Last updated 2023-01-17.