Lizard (Agama agama) with Cal Tailbot Robot and Model Velociraptor (Discovery Channel 4D Anatomy Model, 2008 Fame Master Ent. Ltd.) (Thomas Libby, Evan Chang-Siu and Pauline Jennings. )

What happens when a lizard slips just before leaping into the air? Does the tail go up or down? And what on earth does it have to do with emergency first responders and retaining students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields?

The answers start with a study by scientists at the University of California Berkeley.

A team of biologists and engineers sought to find out, specifically, how lizards are able to leap successfully even if they slip or stumble just before going airborne. Their collaboration and the resulting findings could be one secret to saving lives and keeping students interested in the STEM subjects.

It turns out that in the 1993 blockbuster “Jurassic Park,” the scene towards the end of the film where a Velociraptor leaps onto a Tyranosaurus Rex skeleton got the physics just right. The action presciently illustrates the Berkeley team’s findings — in particular, that a lizard that slips just before jumping pitches its tail upwards to keep it from flying into an oncoming object or plummeting to the ground.

It may seem like a small observation, but engineers translated these findings into a mathematical model and then to a toy car named Tailbot. The car was equipped with a gyroscope to sense its body position and, of course, a tail. When the car launched off of a ramp without the assistance of the gyroscope and tail adjustments, Tailbot plunged straight into the ground. But, with the assistance of sensors and mimicking a lizard’s tail behavior, Tailbot was able to adjust its position and land wheels down.

Figure 1 from the paper "Tail-assisted pitch control in lizards, robots and dinosaurs” to be published in the Jan. 12 print edition of the journal Nature. (Nature/Nature)

The biological discovery and the application in robotics could mean more agile search-and-rescue robots able to go places inaccessible to humans and trained animals. Take, for example, the aftermath of the tragic earthquake in Haiti or the tsunami in Japan. When humans were unable to enter the wreckage, dogs were sent. Imagine if, rather than dogs, robots armed with cameras and sensors could enter the rubble and provide feedback on the damage and signs of life?

“Engineers quickly understood the value of a tail,” said Berkeley professor and study co-author Thomas Libby via a Berkeley press release. “Robots are not nearly as agile as animals, so anything that can make a robot more stable is an advancement, which is why this work is so exciting.”

But, beyond the discovery and its potential applications, co-author and Director of Berkeley’s Center for Interdisciplinary Biological Inspiration in Education and Research (CiBER), Robert J. Full, is most excited about bridging the divides between disciplines.

“I would argue that, for cutting edge research, you have to really operate in interdisciplinary teams,” said Full, during an interview with the Post Tuesday. According to Full, students are not being trained this way, and it presents a barrier to breakthrough discoveries.

“Interdisciplinary is the way to go,” said Full, “so let’s teach them some of everything.”

The first challenge, however, is finding a “common language, ” according to Full. After all, engineers are trained to speak one way, while biologists are trained to speak another. At CiBER, says Full, “They learn each other’s strengths and how they both can be put in a mutualism. Both gain knowledge and information about their area.”

“The collective discoveries that come out,” continued Full, “are beyond what any single group can do.”

This means learning through discovery rather than rote education for both graduate and undergraduate students alike. But does it mean greater retention in the STEM fields — a leading concern for policy makers and business leaders?

“We don’t have enough data yet to say anything, but it looks really good so far,” said Full. “It’s going to be two to three more years before we will have enough data to say anything confidently.”

The need for interdisciplinary collaboration goes beyond the sciences, according to Full who, as a member of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, has had dinner with filmmaker and “Star Wars” creator George Lucas. “When they talk to us, they know that we’re a little bit crazy,” said Full of the interaction between filmmakers and scientists. But the collaborations have led Full to advise on films, such as “A Bug’s Life.”

“There’s this whole other world you can interract with,” said Full, who has presented at the TED conference (his video on animal movement has been viewed nearly 250,000 times) “you’re much more likely to be happy if you have more options with the kinds of things you can contribute.”

The CiBER research was funded by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF), including the NSF’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship Program (IGERT) specifically on Bio- and Bio-inspired Motion Systems Operating in Complex Environments. Additional funds were provided by the Micro Autonomous Systems Technologies (MAST) consortium, which is funded in part by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory. The findings will be published in the Jan. 12 print edition of the journal Nature.

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