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Enhance Your PLTW Class with Hands-on Neuroscience

Engage your students with even more Real-World Science

PLTW is a powerhouse in the STEM Ed movement. Thanks to them, many schools are offering courses in Engineering, Computer Science, and, most exciting to us at BYB, Biomedical Sciences. Thanks to these courses, students have the opportunity to learn about all sorts of incredible career and research fields (Including Biomedical Engineering and Neuroscience!), and the courses are led by inquiry and hands-on activities.

We work with many PLTW teachers who have incorporated Backyard Brains tools and experiments to help enrich their courses and to provide exciting, hands-on labs and materials for some of the trickier to cover concepts. Below I have just a few examples of how to incorporate new and novel labs and demonstrations into your PLTW course to empower and inspire your students.

If you teach a PLTW course, this will be a great resource for you as you seek ways to further engage your students and give them real-world, hands-on experiences. If you don’t teach a PLTW course, well, as they say, steal everything that isn’t nailed down or protected by licensing (none of our materials are!) and use it to improve your own classes!

Medical Interventions

Unit 3: How to Conquer Cancer

Lesson 3.3: Treating Cancer

In brief, here are a few of the performance objectives for this lesson

  • Design and create a simple model of an arm that is able to pick up an empty Styrofoam cup.
  • Complete a laboratory investigation using data acquisition software and probes to explore biofeedback therapy.
  • Design an experiment to test the effect of relaxation techniques on their heart rate, respiration rate, and skin temperature.
  • Design and present a comprehensive rehabilitation plan for an assigned patient.

Prosthetics and assistive technologies are really exciting examples of applied sciences. It shows students how they can combine an interest in the life sciences with computer science and engineering. We’ve had many PLTW use Backyard Brains’ The Claw during this lesson to give students a hands-on experiment with a real neuroprosthetic. By recording from the muscles in their arms (or anywhere in their body), students can dynamically control the claw.

Then, you can have students design their own neuroprosthetic which they can actually control with their nervous system…

Biofeedback is an umbrella which includes neuroprosthetics, but within these objectives, it is being investigated as a therapeutic system. Learning to control or affect certain functions of your body can be hard. Learning to REGAIN control following injury or illness can be even more challenging. The goal of Biofeedback systems is that they provide an external indicator of how the subject is progressing. This includes everything from regaining control of movement in your body, to simply staying calm, managing your heart rate, or meditating with an EEG device!

Check out these Backyard Brains experiments which use the Heart and Brain SpikerBox to explore some of these signals, then your student can design a biofeedback experiment observing EEG, EKG, or even EOG (Eye Potentials).

Experiment: Record and Decode your Heart Rate

Experiment: Observe your Sympathetic Nervous System in Action

Experiment: Record Alpha Waves from your Brain

Experiment: Eye Potentials? What are those?

Required Kits: The Claw & Heart and Brain SpikerBox

Human Body Systems

Unit 2: Communication

Lesson 2: Electrical Communication

Sounds like electrophysiology to me! In brief, here are a few of the performance objectives for this lesson

  • Use an interactive website to manipulate ions in a membrane and generate an action potential in a neuron.
  • Complete a laboratory investigation using data acquisition software and probes to explore reflexes in the human body.
  • Design an experiment to test factors that could impact reaction time.

A question with an obvious answer: would you rather your students learn about neurons by making a pipe-cleaner 3D model and clicking through a web-app? Or do you want them to record living neurons from a model organism, turning the introduction of neuroscience into a hands-on, quantitative lab? Much like the NGSS MS-LS1-8, this is an opportunity to introduce students of any age to Neuroscience by performing one of the most fundamental experiments in neuroscience: recording directly from a neuron!

Using the Neuron SpikerBox, students can first observe live Action Potentials, then learn about how these signals are interpreted – a process called Rate Coding.

Experiment: Record from a Living Neuron

Experiment: Learn how Action Potentials Encode Information

Required Kit: Neuron SpikerBox

But what about Humans? We believe that using cockroaches and other model organisms to introduce neurons and Action Potentials is an incredibly important and powerful learning experience. But we’re not about to ignore the human element…

When we show students the Human-Human-Interface (seen in the above TED talk), it never fails to amaze and surprise them. It is also an incredibly effective way to illustrate the role that electrical systems play in sending and receiving signals throughout the human body. One PLTW teacher we work with said she usually tries to invite the principal in to be the subject of the experiment, making it especially fun for the students when they get to take control!

Experiment: Take Someone’s Free Will

Required Kit: Human-Human-Interface


In this lesson, there is also an emphasis on understanding reflexes and reaction time – rightfully so! Mental Chronometry is the foundation of modern neuroscience. Before we studied Neurons, we studied reaction times to externally investigate the nervous system. Could you react faster to a sound, a light, or a touch? Differences in these reaction times and, consequently, differences in reflexes, informed an early understanding of neural circuitry, and you too can perform these experiments!

Check out these experiments below which students can get started with before hacking them to create their own projects!

Experiment: How Fast Can Your Body React?

Experiment: The Patellar Reflex and Reaction

Required Kits: Muscle SpikerBox & Reaction Timer

Unit 4: Movement

Lesson 2: Muscles & Lesson 4: Exercise Physiology

Here are a few of the performance objectives for these lessons

  • Investigate Muscular Anatomy and learn about the link between Muscles, Neurons, and your Brain
  • Learn how muscles are composed of units called sarcomeres, which contract and shorten when exposed to electrical stimuli.
  • Complete a laboratory investigation using data acquisition software and probes to explore muscle fatigue.
  • Design an experiment to test the effect of feedback, coaching or competition on muscle fatigue.

These lessons are a great way to bridge the gaps between many different interests. Athletes in your class are going to be excited to learn about exercise physiology, your bio students are going to love to learn about motor-units and muscular anatomy, and all the students love a little bit of competition and hands-on experiments…


Beginning with the mechanisms which excite your muscles and which we can record data from, students learn about and record EMG signals from their own muscles using the Muscle SpikerBox Pro. This allows your students to hear, see, and record the electrical activity of their muscles, ultimately facilitating a number of exciting (and competitive) labs.

But first, your students can explore muscular anatomy and learn about Agonist and Antagonist muscle pairs, and then take a deeper dive to record from Motor Units.

Experiment: Agonist and Antagonist Muscle Groups

Experiment: Hunting for Motor Units

Exercise Physiology

Muscle Fatigue is the next phenomena to investigate, and here’s where things can get competitive (or, if you prefer, comparative!)Students can design their own muscle fatigue experiment or comparative inquiry. By quantifying the strength of the beginning and end of an EMG signal, students can create a Rate of Fatigue over time which they can then compare between each other, or themselves as they continue to exercise over several trials in a day, or over several months. Does a competitive format inspire a student to hold out for longer (we call this hands-free arm wrestling) or will muscles fatigue at a similar rate regardless? That’s for your students to investigate!

Experiment: Modeling Rates of Fatigue

Want to see an example from a real HS Senior student? Check out her research poster titled:

Analyzing Muscle Fatigue Patterns Between Softball Players and Pianists.

Required Kit: Muscle SpikerBox Pro

What will you and your students discover?

As you can see above, there are a lot of ways you can take your PLTW lessons to the next level by engaging your students with hands-on electrophysiology. All of these tools are designed to be accessible and easy to use and, as you can see above, they are very affordable.

The above devices pair with free data-acquisition software called SpikeRecorder, which you can download on any smart device, tablet, Chromebook, or computer. For more information, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our General Email.

Your support helps us to improve our open-source devices, to perform research, and to write new experiments!

Together, we are working to inspire a new generation of neuroscientists, biomedical engineers, Doctors, and other STEM professionals. And for those students who do not pursue a STEM field, we are teaching them critical thinking skills, problem-solving strategies, and the knowledge they need to know to be scientifically literate citizens.

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