Neuroscience Education creates Excitement, engenders Empathy, and inspires Exploration
A quick introduction: Amy Farkas is a Middle School STEM teacher from Southeastern Michigan who sought and won funding for her class’s foray into Neuroscience. She then spent the last quarter of her school year this past year introducing her students to Neuroscience and Biomedical Sciences.
These are the voyages of a 7th grade STEM classroom: a several week mission to explore strange new phenomena; to seek answers to the mysteries of the brain; to boldly create classroom experiences where no standards have gone before.
Amy (That’s me, to the left, performing RoboRoach Neural Surgery….): Back in January, I received an email from Will at BYB asking if we could have a conversation about Neuroscience and the Kits that BYB produces that make it accessible for everyone. What Will didn’t know at the time was that I was searching for one or two new units to add into my curriculum at the end of the year. I’m a firm believer that STEM education needs to evolve every year to keep up with our constantly changing culture and advancements in technology.
I teach every 7th grader in my district, and that equaled 242 students in 8 classes. The week I spoke with Will, I began doing my research into BYB, and by the following week, I was ready to present my ideas about learning Neuroscience to my most important clients, my students. I started by asking them how many of them knew what Neuroscience was, and very few hands went up. I then asked them to stand up if they knew anyone that had Alzheimer’s, or dementia, or epilepsy. I continued on with Autism, ADD, or ADHD. I asked about depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder. And then I had them look around… and in every class, every single one of my 242 students had stood up.
I explained that one out of every five people is affected by a neurological disorder, by since the brain is so complex and the field of Neuroscience is still relatively small, we don’t have “cures” for any of the conditions that I mentioned. I then asked them if they would like to learn more about something that affects every single one of us…not so that they would all become Neuroscientists (although that would be awesome), but instead, so we could better empathize and understand the people around us. They responded with a resounding “YES!”
The Funding Gambit: MACUL Idea Slam
Once I determined that I wanted to bring Neuroscience into my classroom, I needed to find a way to fund my BYB Kits, which would run approximately $1,500. Conveniently, I would be attending the MACUL (Michigan Association of Computer Users in Learning) Conference in March, and I knew about a contest that might help me win $1,500! I submitted my “pitch” for Neuroscience to the METS Group for Idea Slam, and I was chosen as one of the four finalists. This meant that the first night of the conference, I would be pitted against 3 other educators/teams that also wanted the funding, and we would compete by each giving a five-minute impassioned “pitch” as to why their project should be chosen. I was the first contestant on stage, and I love a microphone…so I rocked it out! It was obvious that my passion for Neuroscience education was a big contender!
The funniest memories I have of that night were that the microphone didn’t want to work for me, so they switched it out 2 different times, essentially interrupting my flow. But I said to heck with the microphone, and just used my best teacher voice!
When the winner was announced, I jumped up like I was on The Price Is Right, and ran up to grab my larger-than-life-sized check, holding it above my head, so excited to be able to buy the BYB Neuroscience Kits to bring to my students!
On Winning and Getting the Kits; Experimenting with a few students 1:1
Winning was incredibly exciting, and my students’ reaction when I showed them my big check was priceless! I was able to get out to Ann Arbor on Good Friday, meet with Will and get some awesome personalized instruction about the kits. We even built our first RoboRoach!
I had to wait until June to introduce Neuroscience and the BYB kits, so in the interim, I had a student work through them and test them with me. He was my STEM Independent Study and had a blast being the guinea pig for all the new equipment.
Through trial and error, we figured out the right way to attach electrodes, the best placement for them, and the thresholds that I should use when working with students. He was indispensable!
Diving in with the classroom… We’re in too deep to turn back now!
When I asked my student the initial questions about knowing people that were affected by neurological disorders, I had them hooked. They kept asking when the Idea Slam was, then after I won, when I was going to get the kits.
After I brought the kits in and introduced them to our new cockroaches, the anticipation built for about a month and a half before the subject was formally introduced to them.
They loved “hearing” their neurons firing when we monitored their Ulnar nerves. They were especially excited to “see” the waves and how they changed as they flexed and their neurons were activated.
Then, we learned about how we could take those signals and use them to control devices… My students were fascinated by the idea that they could control The Claw by just flexing their muscles! We discussed neuroprosthetics and how we could potentially design and 3-D print other appendages to add to the claw for more specialized activities.
They were super stoked to control each other using the Human to Human Interface, and I’ve never seen that volume of permission slips returned the very next day!
Throughout our use of the Backyard Brains neuroscience kits, the one thing that was foremost in my students’ minds was being able to control the RoboRoach.
We started by recording from the neurons in a cockroach to learn about the similarities in our nervous systems.
Then we moved onto the RoboRoach! The process of creating the RoboRoach was very frustrating for us, it involves a surgery which takes some practice, and we almost ran out of roaches to turn into cyborgs. We were finally able to get our RoboRoach functional the last day of experimentation, and I videoed the working cyborg so all the classes would be able to see it, just in case things didn’t work later! But the video wasn’t as fascinating to them as actually having the roaches in the room was! You’ve got to see it in person to really believe it.
End of Year reflections – Neuroscience is the 7th graders top pick!
My kiddos had an amazing experience learning about Neuroscience this year! I would run into parents all over town and all they’d talk about was how thrilled their students were to be working on something so exciting! Their attention span when we had the kits out was longer than I ever anticipated because they were fully engaged in the learning process. I was impressed with their deep level questions about the nervous system, and we spoke daily about why we were including Neuroscience in our curriculum.
Every day, students would come in and share stories with their class about how their lives were different and how they were seeing the world differently because of what they were learning. One student, in particular, was deeply moved: He has epilepsy and said he never told other kids because they looked at him like he was different. He shared that now that everyone in 7th grade understood more about neurological disorders, he was more open to telling people and they had great questions for him! At the end of the year, he gave me a big hug and thanked me for helping him feel “normal” again. MANY tears were shed.
Another favorite memory was the competitiveness of my students when seeing who could go to the highest setting on the TENS unit when using the Human to Human Interface. All of them knew that I would not cause anyone undue pain, and it was their call as to which setting they wanted to discontinue current on. But a lot of my kiddos are athletes, and they hypothesized that the more developed your muscles, the less discomfort you feel with the Spiker Box and TENS unit controlling your nerves. So, the phrase “Take me to an eight” was born. That meant that they had moved up incrementally through the levels of current that the TENS unit produced, and wanted to go to the highest setting. The shouts of “Take me to an eight” became so common that I joked with them that at their high school graduation in 5 years, I’d be in the front row shouting “Take them to an eight!”
The last day of school, I save the whole class period for reflection: what we’ve learned, what they felt invested in, what they enjoyed most and what they didn’t learn, but would still like to. The overwhelming student favorite and winner, once again unanimous, was Neuroscience and our BYB Kits! It was the perfect way to end their year.
Summer Science Camp gets Neuro Cool
For the first time this summer, I taught summer camp in Saline, MI through their Community Education Programming. Neuroscience Camp was five days, for three hours each day. I spent the first few days showing students how their nervous systems worked and teaching in-depth lessons embedded with hands-on crafts about neurons. The final two days I brought in my BYB Kits and we introduced hands-on neuroscience, which was a big hit!
To the Future…
Unfortunately, I did not receive the MACUL grant that I applied for that would have brought in a VR gaming computer for my students to experience the nervous system and brain in a fully immersive setting. However, Will brought up an awesome pilot project for me to try with my students, and I’m excited to get the ball rolling.
This year, I am moving up to 8th grade, so I will have the same students as last year. I’ve written a whole new curriculum for this grade level and was excited to include more Neuroscience! We will be embarking on an engineering design project to conceptualize, research, design, build and test our own Neuroprosthetics! BYB has been the best addition to my STEM lab, and my students’ lives are better for having learned all they did about Neuroscience! Who knows? We may have inspired some of them to go to medical school!