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November Conferences

November is always a busy month at Backyard Brains, and this year was no exception! We expanded our conference tour to four conferences across two continents, from California, USA to Belgrade, Serbia.We did thousands of demos for new customers and promoted nearly 10 new products coming to BYB in 2019. Here are some tidbits about our domestic endeavors. 

SFN: Society for Neuroscience Conference

The Society for Neuroscience Conference is our annual Big Event. We’ve been going for years and always have BYB members from all over the world converge to give demos and sell our wares. We like to brag that we have the most interactive exhibit at SFN, and we think our attendees would agree!

As we continue our work to make neuroscience accessible, we are finding that there is a surprising lack of opportunity for many undergraduate students to do hands-on neuroscience labs. SFN is a great opportunity to meet with Professors and undergraduate instructors are looking for affordable ways for their undergrads to begin performing meaningful labs and research. For fractions of the cost of a single “research grade” rack, professors can outfit their labs with electrophysiology gear for every student! Not only that, but many undergrad and graduate students are similarly looking for tools which can empower their neuroscience outreach efforts, and are excited to discover us as they wander the exhibit hall at SFN.

Perhaps the quickest Demo to Classroom conversion ever – On the 4th, we demoed the Human-Human to the NW Noggin team. They bought one on the spot, and then on the 5th, they demoed it to hundreds of elementary schoolers! They came back on the 6th to ask for more electrodes. We eagerly stuffed their bags! Welcome to the Neurorevolution, NW Noggin!

NABT: National Association of Biology Teachers Conference

This year, we did a week-long conference binge! As soon as we put a wrap on SFN, we packed our bags, moved to a different San Diego hotel, and set up for our second weekend conference! We had the opportunity to meet up with Biology teachers from all across the country at the National Association of Biology Teachers conference (What a mouthful, we’re thankful for acronyms) or NABT.

Biology teachers are our people. There is a great deal of neuroscience in the General/Honors track biology curriculum, as students learn about the nervous systems of vertebrates and invertebrates. Biology teachers are also some of the most hands-on teachers we know. No other required classes have such an emphasis on hands-on learning, making BYB and Bio a natural fit.

CSTA: California Science Teachers Association Conference

One last break from winter in the midwest for Will — the California Science Teachers’ Association recently hosted their annual conference in sunny Pasadena. Will made the trip solo to introduce science educators from all across the great state of California to the exciting world of hands-on neuroscience. His message was Backyard Brain’s message: Neuroscience is the perfect blend of STEM and the Life Sciences, showing students the fascinating intersection of all the different disciplines they are studying.

We’re pushing onwards and finishing 2018 with a bang! We look forward to where our conference tour will take us next year. Have somewhere you think we should visit? Give us a shout on Twitter or email us at hello@backyardbrains.com!


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 brought to life by creative and passionate students. and the methodology we used to choose the projects. This high school has been like a second lab for Backyard Brains, where the students beta test our hardware prototypes and invent new classroom exercises. This year was the first year where the classroom made 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. 

This project was chosen by students that had an interest in animal physiological systems. 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 the students 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, chosen by one gamer and talented student, he 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 he 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, together with the students 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 this group did was very simple. They 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 they 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 the students 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, the group placed two signal electrodes in the abductor muscle of the quadriceps, and the ground on the knee. The students 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 they 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. They 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, they 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!