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Highschoolers use Backyard Brains tools to perform DIY Neuroscience Research at Rockefeller’s Summer Neuroscience Program

Last summer, we shared details about how the Summer Neuroscience Program at Rockefeller helped make an impact on a group of high schoolers from different backgrounds across 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. 

This year, the SNP had another fantastic summer full of student learning and independent research. The program took advantage of many of the experiments and kits we have developed, and one of this year’s program directors, Amy Dunn, shared some of her thoughts on how this year went!

Amy: “A huge focus of the SNP is on students developing their own projects. We introduced the idea of experimental design and recording data with the Backyard Brains Ice Water / EKG Pain Response Experiment, where one of our directors (Cesar Vargas) introduced the students to the concepts of controls, replicates, sufficiency vs necessity experiments and the like.

“The idea was for them to think about the experimental set up in the papers they were reading, and to start to think about framing their own insect experiments the following week! We set up the Heart and Brain Spikerbox in front of the class and got a brave volunteer to get hooked up to the electrodes. Then we asked the students what they thought would happen, and showed them how we could record the data (time between heartbeats).

“We told the students that we wanted to test the effects of pain from ice water on the heart rate and had them come up with the different experiment parameters (how long she should hold her hand in the water, when to take the measurements, that we needed to record the replicates and find the average). We guided them a little bit, but most of it was pretty intuitive based on the lecture Cesar had just given so they came up with most of the ideas themselves! They were really excited to see a very clear increase in the student’s heart rate – the experiment was really robust. Then they came up with different variables they could test and different controls they would want to do (have other people do the experiment, what if you were tired, what if you were nervous being up in front of the class, etc.). 

“Later, we covered muscle physiology and movement, and the movement demos were so much fun!! We gave the students pretty much free range to play with the Muscle Spikerboxes and gave them instructions for a few different experiments that they could choose from. We told them that they should try out a few different methods, and to have an experiment to share with the class after their exploration, so a little over an hour.

“I think the freedom was really fun for the students, and they could choose to measure something that they were interested in – some of the experiments looked at differences between the students’ reaction times, recruitment of different muscles when you do a push-up, and reflexes vs reaction times.

This activity reinforced some of the concepts we had taught about the neuroscience of movements, such as reflex arcs and interneurons connecting opposing muscle groups.

“The movement activities really gave them the chance to see themselves as totally independent scientists.”

“The movement activity was super effective for demonstrating the principles of experiments too (controls, replicates, quantifying their data, recording as they went). They came up with tons of additional experiments that they would want to test if they had more time, and it really gave them the chance to see themselves as totally independent scientists.

“Then, of course, comes the actual research projects!

“The students who used the Neuron Spikerboxes, both this year and in previous years, have generally been interested in the effects of different chemicals on cricket action potentials. I’m not sure if it’s pulling the cockroach leg off, or that working with intact animals seems more exciting, but this has been pretty consistent throughout the time I’ve been working with SNP. Regardless, I think all the students who have used the Spikerboxes are always really excited to see that the shape of an action potential (that we’ve been drawing on the whiteboard for two weeks) actually exists in real life!

“The Spikerboxes also allow students to get some quantitative data in a very short amount of time. While the behavior experiments are always creative and interesting, it is very difficult to get any actual data in a couple afternoons. The SpikeRecorder app allows the students to easily analyze their electrophysiology experiments. The students (and their grad student mentors) are always excited to put together their presentation with their data!

“Overall, we had a fantastic two weeks with the students. Next year, we’re hoping to incorporate even more demos into the lectures (maybe even the sleeping demo, if we can find a sleepy grad student volunteer!). And, in other great news, some other outreach programs here are planning to use the Spikerboxes for their programming throughout the school year!”

We’re thrilled that the SNP had another successful summer of neuroscience education! Keep up the good work!

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