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8th Grade Classroom Showcase: Students Develop Neuroprosthetics Designed to Assist Senior Citizens, Win State-Wide Awards

Last school year we worked with teachers across the country to help bring real, meaningful neuroscience lessons into their classrooms. From 5th grade to university, educators and students loved learning about how the brain works, how we study the brain, and how we engineer devices that can be controlled by the brain!

One educator, in particular, had a compelling project for her students.

You might remember Middle School STEM educator Amy Farkas from a featured blog post last summer: A 7th Grade STEM Classroom’s Neuroscience Adventure

If we had to sum up our experience working with Amy in one tweet, I think this would be appropriate:

From Riverview, Michigan, Amy is a dedicated STEM teacher who is always looking to bring the cutting edge into her classroom. She uses Twitter to track her classroom adventures, and last year we worked together with her to enable her to bring a unique experience to her class!

Her dream project for her students last year was a Neuroprosthetics engineering design project, where she and her class would identify mobility issues that senior citizens in their community faced and then combine their knowledge of engineering and neuroscience to develop assistive devices which could be controlled by the brain!

I spoke with Amy at our office last week, and below you can follow along the timeline of her classroom’s adventure and read about what she had to say on the experience.

Neuroscience Reintroduced

Amy: I was really excited about this past year. I had the opportunity to move up a grade and teach 8th, which meant I would see many of my students from last year in my new class! I was sad when I thought that I was going to be getting a new group of 7th graders because I thought that, okay, there is so much more we could have done with neuroscience last year that my kids had started to discover, but we ran out of time at the end of the year.

And then, um, when my colleague decided to retire, so I was able to loop up with these same seventh graders and, of course, the number one thing on their list that they wanted to learn this year was more neuroscience!

I think what really affected them most during our journey with neuroscience, and especially this year with neuroprosthetics, was first and foremost lessons on empathy and understanding. It is hard to accept that there are so many neurological conditions and there are no solutions for any of them. And teaching empathy and understanding of things like autism, ADHD, and the different epilepsies, I mean, it’s crazy how much that really affected my kids and having them that second year and seeing the maturity they developed around others that could possibly have these issues was really, really amazing.

There was one of my students that has a little cousin that has a life-ending disease. Like, his life expectancy with this disease was ten. He’s eleven and a half right now. My student interviewed him on camera, and we watched the video of this little boy being interviewed and saw his mobility issues and heard the story of how he has struggled all of his life and it really struck them that maybe I can do something to help people like this. So it gave them even more investment into developing neuroprosthetics.

A Neuroscience Engineering Project

Amy: We took the class in a neuro-prosthetics direction because of our experiences from the community and our developing empathy. We realized our understanding, or lack of understanding, about neuroscience is how it really affects the human musculoskeletal system.

And I thought what a great way to bring in The Claw kits and they loved doing the human to human interface. So, I thought, what another awesome way to extend their learning with neuroscience than to have them develop their own neuroprosthetic that they could control using the claw or using a servo motor?

We decided to align it with an engineering design contest sponsored by the Army Educational Outreach Program called ECyberMission. And the premise of ECyberMission is you have to develop either through using the engineering design process or the scientific inquiry method a solution to a community problem. And one of the things that we realized was an issue in our community was mobility, especially hand mobility, because over 20% of our community is retired senior citizens. So, we had um, we had planned on initially going to different nursing homes and doing interviews with residents about the mobility issues they faced so then we could develop a prosthetic that would do a job for them.

To follow the Engineering design process, the next steps for them were to research materials that they wanted to use to build their neuroprosthetic. If they were using a servo motor they would have to understand how the servo motor worked. And if they were using The Claw, they would have to come up with modifications.

This led to experts in different classes and if those kids were experts on using the servos, I’d get permission from one of their other teachers and they would come back and teach one of my other classes. Just two or three minutes to do a quick little summary on how you use those. Or if someone became an expert in hooking everything up and they were super fast at it, they would come back and guest in other classes so they could share their knowledge.

My goal was to get students teaching students.

They knew what they needed to do and they were able to express that to their fellow students even better than I would have been able to. So it, you truly are becoming an expert in something you could teach it and that helps you further solidify those skills so I try to foster as much as I can.

https://twitter.com/FarkasSTEM/status/1097898333123825664

There were some challenges due to scheduling and snow days, but the students came out with the knowledge that the engineering design process is integral to everything we do, but this for me showcases how much they truly understand it because they’re working through it and they’re writing up reports for every section.

Every single one of my teams completed their process. Every single one of my teams filed their reports. They went through their testing. They did what they were supposed to do and, in fact, one of my teams won the top award in the state and each student got a thousand dollar US savings bond.

Reflections

I saw neuroscience when we first started seventh grade as something interesting that they weren’t learning that I think they needed to. I saw it as filling a gap. You know, yes they learn about biological sciences, but even in the high school, they don’t go this in-depth with neuroscience.

One out of every five human beings on the face of the earth has some kind of neurological disorder that there are no cures for; That is my pitch and that is like the hook that sucks the kids in and gets them interested in the learning. People keep talking about, you know, standardized tests or making sure our kids are hitting the standards, how about we make them good human beings?

So this really fit in with my thought that STEM as making wonderful citizens of our Earth, like they really go together so neuroscience did that for me. Like, when we tackled it the second year, it was at their request. They enjoyed neuroscience, they wanted to learn more, and they wanted to do more. So I look forward to what they are going to do in high school!

A Message for her Fledgling High Schoolers

To finish, my babies have their first football game tomorrow, the JV team and the one thing I am going to be screaming from the stands is “Take them to an Eight.” And there’ll be an ad in their senior yearbook from Ms. Farkas: Take ‘em to an Eight. That came from our experience with the Human-Human Interface last year. Taking them up to a power level of eight, but it is something that will always, for all two hundred and forty of them, be meaningful – reminding them of the lessons we learned in empathy, science, and engineering thanks to studying Neuroscience, and it is an encouragement to keep them chasing the cutting-edge of STEM!



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