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Taiwanese Student Organizes Outreach

Neuroscience has a way of inspiring people from all walks of life. After all, we all have brains, no matter where we come from! This story comes to us from Taiwan, where Chiao-chi,Chou studies, a 21-year-old student and interactive installation artist in the Department of Communications Design of Shih Chien University. Chiao-chi discovered our products earlier this year, and they inspired her to create her own projects based on our Plant SpikerBox. She contacted us with a proposal to lead a workshop in a neighboring town in early November, teaching primary school children about the science of plant motion.

Chiao-chi grew up in an out-of-the-way village in central Taiwan, where her parents did plant research in the mountains. The educational resources there were relatively scarce, and when she found out about Backyard Brains, she immediately knew it was something she would’ve loved as a child: “Maybe I can go back to my elementary school to hold a workshop for bringing new knowledge to other children, like Backyard Brains bringing to me,” she thought, and started work on her project. “It is very meaningful for me to have this opportunity to bring educational resources home.”

Our Plant SpikerBox is one of the more interesting aspects of our collection, as the organism it works on doesn’t actually have a brain, but some plants move in response to stimulus the way that our bodies do. For her research, Chiao-chi expanded on the open-source nature of our design, “intend[ing] to extend the possibilities of the Plant SpikerBox. [What if] it allowed us to feel the perceptions of plant? If plant had the consciousness and how will we to perceive it? With setting various degree of bioelectrical potential patching on arm to simulate the different magnitude force press to the Mimosa, me and my partner would like to invite people to think the above questions.” Chiao-chi and her partner successfully designed, cut, and assembled their project, pictured below.

The models they created involved rock-cut wood that was assembled into two separate stereo models: one shaped like a human arm, and one like the stem of a plant, specifically the Sensitive Mimosa, both hinged at joint to mimic each other’s shape. “The arm model is controlled by two syringes to help students understand the antagonist muscle,” Chiao-chi said. “[The] mimosa model also uses the hydraulic principle to express the turgor movement.” In terms of the hardware, she built a green circuit board, modified according to the open-source circuit diagram for the Plant SpikerBox, and set up an oscilloscope on the board to allow viewers to see the waveforms of human and plant action potentials, just like the Plant SpikerBox. As seen below, the modified board was hooked up to both a plant and a person via electrodes. 

As excited as she was about her research, she wanted something else: to share her knowledge with other students. So, she proposed a plan to the local primary school teacher. She would plan and facilitate a workshop with primary school students, training a number of assistants prior to the event, and helping the students to build their own devices and do the experiment. Her proposal was eagerly accepted, and after weeks of preparation and training, the workshop occurred in early November! Eleven students were mentored through the process of building and performing experiments with her models and her designs based on the modified Plant SpikerBox. A simplified version of the one pictured above was utilized in the workshop, and students volunteered to hook themselves up to a plant and feel what happens when they stimulated it.

The event was a hit! She writes: “The workshop ended satisfactorily yesterday and the children actively participated in the event. I explained to the students the structure of muscle and mimosa in the morning, which mentions the role and difference of vacuole in animal cells and plant cells. At the stage of making the toys, we saw that they used the remaining wood to decorate the finished product. After the lunch break, we explain the basic electrical concepts and lead students to measure the micro-energy of plants. I also let the children use the modified Plant SpikerBox. [T]he children expressed their surprise at the new knowledge and complained about the bad lunch (because I ordered a lot of greens lol). All in all, we had a great time. The lovely students are also looking forward to the next event!”

Chiao-chi,Chou is currently applying to the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience of National Central University to continue her studies. We wish her all the best in her future neuroscience endeavors, and eagerly look forward to hearing about any future workshops she brings to fruition. Welcome to the NeuroRevolution, Chiao-chi,Chou, it is wonderful to have you here!

Let us know if you’d like some guidance on leading a Backyard Brains workshop in your town! Email us at hello@backyardbrains.com and pitch us some ideas! We’re always looking to spread the NeuroRevolution!


Backyard Brains High School Student Personal Projects

Backyard Brains is live from inside the classroom of Colegio Alberto Blest Gana in Santiago to present you 5 group projects we did with our students and the methodology we used to choose the projects. This high school has been like a second lab for Backyard Brains, where, hand in hand with the students, we test much of our equipment, beta test our hardware prototypes, and invent new classroom exercises. This year was the first year where we had students do independent group projects, with a class size of about 15 students, ranging from 7th grade to high school seniors.  

It can be a challenge to involve students in independent projects when it is their first time,  so it is important to let the students conceive their own project ideas from the beginning. The ideas need to come from inspiration, not mandated from above. That’s why, to help out in the creative process, we devised an interview that would work like a conversation, where the student can start to imagine what they would like to build, or what problem they would like to solve. You can use this pdf as a guide

To guide some shy students that weren’t sure what they wanted to build, we suggested projects that the students could modify so that they could begin to feel that the idea we gave them is also their own.  We then place the people that had similar ideas and interests into the same group. As a suggestion, if you are working with students with very different ages, it is important to mix it up a little in this area: always have a mix of older students with younger students.

The interview resulted in 5 projects:

  1. The Electrocardiogram of the Clam. 

The project was chosen by students that had an interest in animal physiological systems, and we suggested studying clam electrophysiology. Most of the students didn’t know before this experiment that a clam has a heart, because when you open it, the clam’s organs just look like a blob. It isn’t easy to notice distinct anatomical parts that look so different from the organs of vertebrates. After finding the heart, a challenge for students (and even for us teachers), we needed to make sure the heart was still moving and contracting. Unlike a vertebrate heart, the beat is not like a regular clock, it can stop a long time and then restart again.

When we saw a heart beat, we placed one red signal electrode in the atrium and the other in the ventricle. The third electrode (ground-black) was placed farther away the clam. These three electrodes were connected to the Backyard Brains Heart and Brain SpikerBox to make the recordings.

And glory of glories, we had success!

However, we don’t know if what we recorded is in fact an artifact arising from relative movement of the recording electrodes, giving rise to a baseline shift that mimics in some ways the P and QRS features of a typical ECG. Our next step is to manually deform the heart to see if similar features arise. If not, then perhaps we observed a real biologically-generated clam electrocardiogram. You can download our recording here. 

  1. Muscle-Keyboard-Interface.

In this project, we used the electricity generated by voluntary muscle contraction to take over the keyboard of a computer.

 The appeal of this project is that muscle interfaces work like a charm, a microcontroller is easy to program, and it’s all very low cost. To accomplish this, we decided to control a very easy and accessible video game with the electrical impulses of the muscles, using our Muscle SpikerShield combined with the Arduino Leonardo. The advantage of an Arduino Leonardo is a computer can recognize the Leonardo as a keyboard input. The video game we chose was Google Chrome’s offline dinosaur video game: you can play it fine with only one key on the keyboard (the space bar makes the dinosaur jump…though pressing the down arrow key also makes the dinosaur duck). It’s fun, and you don’t need internet or any specialized gamer hardware to run it. You can download the code here.

  1. Cockroach Labyrinth.

The idea of this project was to build a labyrinth to learn about cockroach behavior and food preferences. Could they learn the route to reach a preferred food source faster over time, say, a banana slice instead of a potato slice?

Unfortunately, this project was done in the open air during winter, with a temperature of 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature at which cockroaches are not that hungry and not highly active, so using food as an incentive didn’t work. Also, another problem  was that the cockroaches were able to climb the walls of the labyrinth. Nevertheless, the students got over these obstacles and had success with one experiment:  they placed a lid on half of the labyrinth to make that section dark, and left the other half uncovered, so light could get in. They released the cockroaches, and after one minute, all of the three cockroaches were in the dark side, just like Anakin Skywalker.  A small sample size, but convincing evidence of what was suspected all along: cockroaches prefer dark spaces.

  1. The Polygraph Lie Detector.

This project was from a group of students interested in the physiology of lying. At Backyard Brains we love to extract and read physiological signals, and as the traditional polygraph measures skin conductance, respiration, blood pressure, and heart rate, building a DIY polygraph is right in our wheelhouse. To keep it simple in the beginning, we decided to focus on skin conductance alone, something we have been asked to study before many times.

        When someone lies, there is the hypothesis that the persons subtly increases sweating. Since sweat is salty water, and salty water is much more conductive than dry skin, we should be able to measure a decrease in skin resistance across the palms when a person is lying.

The first experiment we did was very simple. We checked the skin resistance using a multimeter and patch electrodes across our inner palms before and after running on the treadmill The results were the following:

Before running 5 kilometers

97  Kiloohms 

After running 5 kilometers (24 minutes)

12 Kiloohms

The results are crystal clear, a body covered in sweat is much less resistant to electrical current than dry skin.

The next step was to find a way to graph skin resistance in real time, and test it using lies instead of jogging. The students made a simple circuit in Arduino where the grey cables go from 5 V input to analog 0 in arduino, buuuutttt, the cable is cut and the person must grab each end of the cut cable with each hand. They then used the sample code “graph” which graphs the voltage value of the analog input, which, of course, will change depending on the resistance of the skin across the student’s hands.

When we tested using lies, there was no significant change in the value of the skin resistance, as the effect is simply too subtle, if it even exists at all, to measure using our equipment. Although the final test wasn’t successful, at least we tore down the myth that galvanic skin response can detect lies by itself. That’s why complete polygraph machines also measures respiration, blood pressure and heart rate, and the combination of all these elements supposedly makes the polygraph a more reliable tool for detecting lies. If we continue this project in the future, we will look into integrating these other physiological signals in addition to skin conductance.

  1. Muscle Electrophysiology in soccer.

 This group of students was interested in how electromyography changes when making different strength kicks in soccer: kicks made for small distances, like close passes, and kicks made for big distances, like aiming for the goal or to a player that’s far away. To do this, we placed two signal electrodes in the abductor muscle of the quadriceps, and the ground on the knee. We  then placed masking tape in the floor, marking the distance in meters, and the subject kicked the soccer ball to a friend waiting at the various meter marks.

 

The different distances we used were 5 meters (16.4 feet), 3 meters (32.8 feet), 15 meters (49.2 feet), 20 meters (65.5 feet), 25 meters (82 feet), 30 meters (98.5 feet), and 35 meters (114.8 feet). Below is a sample of the data they recollected:

As you can see quite nicely, the amplitude of the EMG of the quadriceps increases as the soccer ball kicks become more forceful. This was our hypothesis, that as you recruit more and more muscle fibers during a movement, the EMG signal amplitude will increase due to the higher number of action potentials generated and the superposition that results.

This experiment on the physiology of sports was very fun for the students. We also tried baseball pitches, but the rapid “snap-back” movement of the arm would always cause the cables attached to the triceps to come flying off. With basketball, we did not notice a dramatic difference between two point and three point shots. So, as the students were happy to report, for now, soccer is the best for studying the physiology of sports using our equipment! We will keep trying with baseball for all the Detroit Tigers fans out there.

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These final projects were worked on once a week, for 1.5 hours, for 2.5 months, and on October 30th, the students presented their results to the community to much success. The sports physiology and the clam EKG experiment will be the first to be transformed into formal Backyard Brains experiments on our webpage, so stay tuned! If you are interested to having the students in your school working on personal group projects, feel free to contact us, and we investigate the world together!


Summer Neuroscience Camp Empowers NYC Teens!

Rockefeller’s Summer Neuroscience Program:

Graduate Students share their excitement for Neuroscience with teens from all over NYC

The Summer Neuroscience Program (SNP) is self-described as “a two-week course aimed at introducing talented and enthusiastic high school students to the brain,” but could more affectionately be described as summer neuroscience camp!

Students learn about the history of neuroscience, modern trends and research, participate in Journal Clubs, prepare presentations, and, in culmination, perform a DIY research project where students plan, execute, and present the results of their very own inquiry. Many of the students perform experiments using our Neuron SpikerBoxes!

Annie Handler, one of the program’s co-directors, is a friend of Backyard Brains and recently shared some details with us about her background and about the Summer Neuroscience Program. Below are her words, and within them, we have portraits of talented, enthusiastic neuroscientists, motivated high school students, and fantastic examples of DIY neuroscience done right!

Introducing Students to Neuroscience

In its first year, SNP had eight high school students in the program –– this year we had 350 applications for the program and accepted 16 students. Despite the strong interest in the program, we feel a small classroom size is most effective at cultivating self-confidence and creativity among students who have had minimal exposure to science outside of the classroom setting. This environment encourages students to ask/answer questions in a very intimate setting where they feel comfortable thinking outside the box.

Every year it inspires me that all the students we accept to the program show up on the first day and continue to show up day after day. Often, the feedback we get from students relates to how much they enjoyed getting to meet and make friends with other students who share a similar passion for science and the brain. We don’t really expect the students to retain or memorize all the facts they learned during the program –– instead, we hope (and often hear in response!) that the students walk away from the program with the following:

  1. greater confidence in their critical thinking skills,
  2. awareness that, if they want to, they too can be a scientist
  3. new, like-minded friends!

High school science courses focus mostly on the known aspects of biology, physics, and math. This structure can often leave students with the impression that there are few questions left to ask in science –– but the reality is that there are countless mysteries left to be discovered. In fact, students will often ask a question about how the brain works or how we perceive something that stumps all of the directors. These moments are central to SNP because it provides the opportunity to show students that there are still many important questions left to be asked and that it’s OK to not know all the answers – even if you are a graduate student or a professor!

Of course, when we get stumped, we start digging for answers, and if we can’t find any solid research on the question, the students are left feeling inspired that they came up with a question about the brain that no one has a good answer for yet!

About Annie

When we do introductions with the students, I like to share my own experience and trajectory into neuroscience research. I grew up with dyslexia and played piano from an early age. Consequently, I was always interested in how we perceive the world around us –– from reading a book to hearing a piece of music, it was frustrating but fascinating as I excelled in some ways, but struggled in others, relative to other kids my age. Obviously, our brain is central to this process. While the wiring of our peripheral sensory circuits is often stereotyped from person to person, ensuring high-fidelity encoding of our environment, how I perceive the world is quite different from how you perceive the world due to differences in our brain circuitry/processing and due to how our experiences have shaped our brains in different ways.

This idea of the differences in perception across animals and people got me hooked on thinking more deeply about neuroscience. I went to Amherst College and majored in Neuroscience and Music Composition. Now, in graduate school, I continue to study how our experience shapes our perception of the world by using the simple nervous system of Drosophila Melanogaster (Fruit flies!). Using Drosophila, I am studying how learning changes the function of neural circuits to drive adaptive changes in animal behavior.

I got involved with SNP in 2014 as a volunteer mentor and in 2016 I became a co-director of the program. The three-fold format of the program –– lecture, journal club, and hands-on experimental design –– appealed to me, and I felt like it was a great opportunity to help students gain an appreciation for the scientific process. On top of helping students learn to think like a scientist, it also offered me the opportunity to practice my science communication skills –– which I think are critical for all scientists to develop! It also helped me deepen my own understanding of neuroscience – we learn so much through teaching, and I have a much greater appreciation now for the elegance of the Action Potential as I’ve had to dive deep into the fundamentals as my students keep posing me thoughtful questions.

The Projects

During the second week of the program, students design and carry out their own experiments to study the nervous system of insects (crickets or cockroaches) inspired by what they learned in the first week of lectures. The lectures in the first week cover the basics of neuroscience –– what is a neuron, how does an action potential work, and the principles of the different sensory systems). Students are free to design behavioral experiments or electrophysiology experiments using the SpikerBoxes or can opt to do a combination of the two.

This year, two students studied the effect of negative associative conditioning on motor neuron activity in crickets. To do this, students paired a color with a negative stimulus of shaking the cricket. They then measured the neural activity evoked by the conditioned color in motor neurons and compared the activity to a control cricket with no conditioning experience. The students hypothesized that negative reinforcement would cause the crickets to want to escape the conditioned color and this would lead to more neural activity in the motor neurons when the crickets were presented with the conditioned color. I found this experiment incredibly creative and highly advanced for high school students. The desire to link experience with neurophysiology and behavior is a cornerstone of the most advanced research conducted at R1 institutes.

Another group of students studied how chemicals –– like neurotransmitters and toxins –– alter the firing rate and waveform of action potentials in the cricket. They used GABA, dopamine, and tetrodotoxin (I’ll note that all of these chemicals were handled by the graduate student mentors and the high school students were not allowed to touch the chemicals or inject the chemicals into the crickets). The students researched the site of action of these different chemicals and used their research to explain the effects they observed in the firing properties of the motor neurons of the cricket. Other memorable projects using SpikerBoxes have examined the effects of caffeine and salinity on firing rate.

What’s next for an SNP student?

A number of SNP alumni pursue STEM-related majors in college. One example is a former SNP student named Jackson R. who went on to major in neuroscience at SUNY Binghamton and currently works as a research technician in the same lab I work in (Vanessa Ruta’s Laboratory of Neurophysiology and Behavior) –– he is an author on this recent paper from the lab. He is in the process of deciding between going to medical school or graduate school to study neuroscience. 

Additionally, a number of SNP alumni successfully apply for more advanced STEM-related research programs including the Summer Science Research Program at Rockefeller University. This is a 7-week program where students work in a lab at Rockefeller on an original research question.  The fact that students can come into SNP with absolutely no science experience and gain enough experience to end up working in a competitive research lab at Rockefeller is another huge measure of success that we use for our program!

Required Kit: Neuron SpikerBox / Pro

The SpikerBoxes used by the SNP are circa 2012… and it’s awesome and rewarding to see them still supporting student neuroscience several years later! (They continue to work with new phones too, even with the new iPhone X!)

We’ve made some upgrades in the past 6 years though – if you want to perform your own invertebrate physiology experiments with your students, check out the kits on our Store where you can learn about the tools and the labs they support! The Neuron SpikerBox and Neuron SpikerBox Pro are here to serve your DIY Neurosci Needs!