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Backyard Brains 2021 AI Fellowship

Call for HS Teachers and Undergraduates in Biology, Engineering and the Arts:

Calling all AI and neuroscience nerds (AND nerd wannabes): We are back! 

After taking a hiatus due to a global pandemic, we are proud to announce that we are returning with a very special guest star: TinyML! Tiny Machine Learning (TinyML) is a deep learning toolkit made for tinkers, educators and for those who want to know how machine learning really works… and we are excited about what it could mean to neuroscience educators!

For the first time ever, we are inviting K12 teachers to be a part of our summer program!  Learn how to integrate Machine Learning into your project-based lessons and help provide feedback on our teaching tools and project curricula! 

This summer, our fellowship program will focus on developing creative, wearable, and fun human-machine interfaces that can react with your brain waves, muscle, heart and eye movements using Deep Learning. You will learn the basics of neuroscience, computational thinking, machine learning, electronics, and will go from start to finish on developing your very own project. You will get support from our in house scientists and experts through every stage of your project.

About the 2021 Fellowship Program

Our AI Fellowship program will be designed around 2 cohorts.  The first are undergraduates with a background in Neuroscience, Art, Electrical, Mechanical or Computer Engineering, where they learn how to develop their own innovations, conduct fun experiments around computational neuroscience.  We are also recruiting High School teachers interested in learning about AI and how to teach hands-on AI lesson plans in their classroom. Teachers will participate remotely from around the country (1hr / week), and will help guide our projects for optimal use in the classroom. 

This fellowship is focused on developing computational skills. To do so, you will learn how to read and write peer-reviewed papers, discuss and plan around ethical concerns of using AI, learn how to develop a project and collect data, how to analyze and test results, how to make your own scientific poster and present your work to the academic communities, and finally how to speak to the public about your work. This program is unique: instead of working on a small part of the bigger project…  all fellow projects are yours alone!  We will support and guide you through, but you will experience everything from inception to publication… much like the life of a graduate researcher.  No prior research experience is necessary or required!

We develop video series around fellow’s experiments.  For example, we collaborated with TED on a show called “DIY Neuroscience” with each episode focusing on a fellow and their project:

10 week intensive program – 40h/week10 week virtual program – 1h/week
Neuroscience and AI training on siteOptional Neuroscience and AI training (online)
Receive research and development mentorship for individual projectAccess to all projects, based on interest
Goal: develop functioning prototypeGoal: develop lesson plans for your classroom
Potential first-author papers of project (IEEE, JUNE, PLoS One)Potential first-author papers of deployment (NSTA, NABT)
$15/h paid bi-weekly$500 for participation
Students Apply Here!Teachers Apply Here!

This year, we are planning to highlight what can be done with TinyML in a video series.  We will be working with the Harvard TinyML EdX course director, Dr. Vijay Janapa Reddi, to help identify roadblocks in the learning process, and will develop a the series to inform others of best practices and creative solutions to issues in particular datasets.  Depending on the outcome, these videos could be included in future EdX courses as “project highlights” or will be developed into its own series for educators. 

Why TinyML?

TinyML combines the power of embedded ultra-low systems (like our Arduino labs) and small sensors (like our EEG and EMG sensors) with the power of machine learning.  Finally, you can now harness the power of AI and carry it with you. What could you create if you could bring the power of Machine Learning in your pocket? Develop new brain-machine interfaces that can sense your finger positions from your EMGs? Capture a photo when AI detects you blinking (to playback the memories of your day that you missed)?  With low-power sensors and AI, the sky’s the limit. Don’t believe us? Take a look at Benjamin Cabé’s artificial nose!

Nose in action – from Benjamin Cabé‘s blog

Benjamin works on open-source IoT initiatives within Microsoft and started this in his spare time (originally to smell his sour-dough starters to predict the tastiness of his baguettes). Here was his reaction when we told him about developing videos around our 2021 AI Fellowship:

“Count me in! While the nose can be seen as a silly project, it has I think a lot of potential to share best practices when it comes to TinyML. Interestingly, I couldn’t get my head around what a neural network was or does until I put it in practice with this project, so I think folks will find it interesting to hear about my journey, pointers to get started, etc.”

You can sign up for the TinyML EdX course below to get a jump on how this technology works now.

backyard brains 2021 fellowship

Program Dates & Details

The 2021 Backyard Brains Summer Research Fellowship is an immersive 10-week program for undergraduates to participate in hands-on computational neuroscience research and experiment design.  Undergrads will be trained and mentored by our team of award winning neuroscientists and engineers, as well as feedback and guidance from K12 teachers.  Our goal is to hold the fellowship in person in downtown Ann Arbor, MI.  We have a large facility and makerspace that can host the fellows safely with social distancing over the summer.  But we are planning a contingency virtual setting should the COVID situation unexpectedly worsen.  Our research fellows are paid $15/hour, and the program will run from May 24 to July 30, 2021.

Our High School teacher cohort will participate virtually from across the country, and will be given training on both neuroscience and computational neuroscience techniques for the classroom. Teachers may also choose to listen in on all fellowship lectures and journal club discussions.  K12 teachers commit to providing guidance and feedback to improve projects to be classroom-friendly in our weekly 1 hour project meetings. Our goal is two-fold: 1) Determine what prior knowledge/background materials in computational neuroscience/AI are needed for teachers to successfully launch project-based lessons around TinyML. 2) Offer a variety of lesson plans that could be implemented as standalone offerings or in your already existing courses for 2022. All applications must be received by noon eastern time (12:00 PM, EST) on March 31, 2021 to be eligible, but admissions will start rolling on March 24… so don’t delay!

backyard brains 2021 fellowship

Your Mentors

This summer you will be trained by Ph.D. Neuroscientists, inventors, makers, seasoned engineers, and public speakers of Backyard Brains.  We will also have some amazing guest speakers.  

  • Pete Warden –  Lead of the TensorFlow Mobile/Embedded team at Google
  • Vijay Janapa Reddi – Associate Professor of School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) at Harvard University, director of the TinyML EdX course
  • Benjamin Cabé – Inventor of the TinyML nose.
  • Mackenzie Mathis – Inventor of “DeepLabCut” and Assistant Professor, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne (EPFL) 

Here’s a testimony from a former Fellow:

“The Backyard Brains summer internship is truly a once in a lifetime experience. Throughout the summer, we got to work as independent researchers on projects that one wouldn’t typically get to experience in a university setting, which allowed us to explore different realms of our scientific interests and grow immensely as scientists and individuals. I feel so fortunate to have been given the experience to pursue such a unique project, under the guidance of arguably the best boss in the entire world, Greg Gage. He provided guidance whenever we needed it while also allowing us the flexibility to execute a project from start to finish on our own terms. By the end of the summer, we were all able to showcase our work on an amazing platform, and conclude our projects feeling so confident in our abilities and excited to pursue whatever lie ahead for all of us as we returned to school/Work/etc.

I left the internship feeling more part of a family than a company and that is something I will have for the rest of my life. If I could do it over again, I would in a heartbeat!” – H. Smith, 2017 Fellow 

Become a BYB Research Fellow in 2021, and help start the compu-neuro-revolution!

backyard brains 2021 fellowship
Yes, we will be celebrating 4th of July together!


Where does the fellowship take place?

You will be located at the Backyard Brains headquarters in downtown Ann Arbor (map). You will also be working out of our MakerSpace lab in BYB Headquarters.  There is plenty of space for social distancing, as we will be limiting the participants this year to accommodate COVID protocols.  

Can international students participate?

Yes, we consider all students from all continents.

How much are the interns paid?

The weekly payment is $600/wk, paid bi-monthly.

How much is housing and can you help us find it?

While we do not pay for your housing, we are happy to inform you that summer housing is notoriously easy to find in Ann Arbor, as students leave for the summer and make available sublets. The price varies, but you can find sublet housing on craigslist for under $400. We recommend that you stay close to downtown/central campus.

I am not out of class until June. Can I start a bit later?

We feel that our interns need a full 10w to make significant progress on their projects. If you have a compelling reason on how this will not affect your project, we are willing to evaluate it on a case by case basis.

I am not an undergrad, can I still apply?

While our program is designed for undergraduates… If you are a college graduate, grad-student, or a super smart High Schooler, we will take your application under consideration.

I am not an K8 Teacher, can I still apply?

While we think High School students would most benefit, we are not the experts. If you have younger students that you feel could benefit, please do apply!

Is there time off for vacations (Research Fellows)?

While you will have ample free time in Ann Arbor, we ask that you make the commitment to stay on project for the entire length of the internship.

Are projects assigned to fellows or do the fellows get some autonomy in deciding the course of their research?

It depends on you.  Some fellows come with a lot of ideas for projects, others like to work with us to first determine what area of research they are interested in and we can provide suggestions.  While this is your project, you are never alone!  We can help you shape the project into something meaningful and obtainable… and give guidance to some research papers and ideas of how to get started.


How to Get Reeled into NeuroDuino – a Mathematician’s Guide (Part II)

A NeuroDuino, Backyard Brains’ latest prototype

Hi there, it’s Natalia Díaz again with an update to my neuromathematical (yes, such a thing exists!) project. If you don’t remember me, I’m a student of Mathematical Engineering at the University of Santiago de Chile and I’m doing my internship here in BackyardBrains.

Since the last time we met (you and I, that is), BYB co-founder Tim Marzullo sent me some cool stuff. Not that it’s an exclusive privilege of interns, mind you! Anyone can find them in the “Muscle SpikerShield Bundle” kit.

With this bundle, you can do several very entertaining experiments such as seeing on your smartphone the action potentials that are produced when you move your muscles. You can also use the Muscle SpikerShield to control video games, robotics, and musical instruments.

It took a while for my board to pass customs, but it managed to arrive and we got to work right away. What I was most excited about was the arrival of new prototype from Backyard Brains – their very own customized Arduino board – codenamed NeuroDuino. (See above how handsome it is!)

Ben Antonellis, a guy who works for Backyard Brains, had created certain functions for a new interface called “NeuroBoard” that will make it easier for users to write working code for the Muscle SpikerShield / NeuroDuino. But the functions needed to be tested and verified by someone other than the principal developer. So, Tim asked me to do the testing and document the process.

Then came testing, testing, testing…

Testing Neuroduino
Natalia, Tim, Python and masks

So what we did at the beginning was try to understand the code that Ben created, where he explained to us a bit what each function should do. For this, we use the Arduino and C ++ programs. For example, we have commands to:

  • Start measurements
  • Find the greatest value of the channel measurements
  • Define the channel that we are going to use (if we select a different one from the one used, there will be no measurements)
  • Function to determine which button is pressed
  • Etc. (Still letting our imagination run wild!)

At first, we had a little trouble at understanding the commands and nomenclature, but we managed to test several of the pre-made functions. However, some did not work for us, so we asked Ben to help us figure out what we were doing wrong.

Ben helped us right away, tweaked the code a bit, and finally the three of us were able to test all the functions. Most of them worked well and some have yet to be modified. But we made a breakthrough, and now most of the code is tested and verified save for a relay function that’s still patiently waiting for its 15 minutes (or hours) of fame.

We are almost done with this phase of my internship, and for the rest of February, my final month, I will be looking into some custom Python analysis scripts.

Tim and I have been working remotely for the past two months, but we finally had a chance to work face-to-face this week (with social distancing and masks of course). The picture above shows how it went.

Stay tuned for my final blog post update at the end of February!

Backyard Brains Receives Prestigious Tibbetts Award 2020 for “Demonstrating Significant Economic and Social Impact”

backyard brains tibbetts award 2020

Another accolade is about to hit our shelves! The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) recently announced recipients of the prestigious Tibbetts Award 2020. Backyard Brains is one of 38 companies that are deemed “beacons of promise and models of excellence in high technology.” Every year, Tibbie goes to companies, individuals and organizations “for the exceptional successes they achieved through SBA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR)” program.

This recognition further fuels our mission to keep building low-fi yet research-grade neuroscience gear and bringing it into your average school classroom. The goal is to help kids dip their toes into project-based science today so that they could help cure billions of people from neurological disorders tomorrow. That’s exactly what Tibbie is all about: a mix of “economic and social impact,” of research and development to propel young companies and help them serve our communities better.

Tibbie is named after Rolland Tibbetts, a senior program officer at the National Science Foundation who founded the SBIR/STTR federal funding program for small innovative companies. Backyard Brains was and still is one of these companies. And we wouldn’t have gotten very far without the support from farsighted federal grant programs for ideas that need time to blossom into successful commercial projects.

Today, we are joining the hall of fame of hundreds of companies and organizations who have been awarded Tibbie since its inception in 1995. Indeed, some multinational giants have kicked off their journey with Tibbie, including Qualcomm, 23andMe, Symantec and Broadcom. Here’s to hoping that we’ll grow at least half as big within the next decade!

Tibbetts Award 2020 is just another star in the BYB Awards & Honors list

backyard brains tibbetts award 2020
Our cofounders Tim Greg with their first award back in 2008

Since it’s bragging time, let’s boast some more! Here’s a list of the many awards and honors Backyard Brains has received over the past 12 years. (It’s not all there is, but we are not very meticulous at keeping track!)

  • 2020 Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Award. GS10KSB is a selective four month training program (worth $50,000) for business leadership and growth strategies.
  • 2020 Invited Talk – J. James Wood Lecture – Butler University
  • 2018 Collaboration with HarvardX on the largest neuroscience massive open online course “Fundamentals of Neuroscience”
  • 2018 Profiled on “Bill Nye Saves the World” on Netflix for our Human-Human Interface kit
  • 2018 Collaboration with TED on new video series: DIY Neuroscience. Each episode features an undergraduate student developing easy-to-use neuroscience research tools for the K12 classroom
  • 2017 Invited talk at the Annual Computational and Systems Neuroscience (Cosyne) 2017 Meeting
  • 2017 Invited talk at TED2017 on plant electrophysiology
  • 2016 Profiled on Mythbuster’s “White Rabbit Project” on Netflix for our human-based neuroscience  inventions
  • 2015 TED Talk about taking away a person’s free will
  • 2014 Invited Speaker at the NIMH Director’s Innovation Speaker Series
  • 2014 TED Senior Fellow, 3rd talk featuring Human-Human Interface available online
  • 2013 Recipient of the United States “Champions of Change” award at the White House for our work in promoting citizen science
  • 2013 Nominee. 5th Annual Imagine Science Film Festival. Controlled Experiments
  • 2013 Profiled on CNN’s The Next List as a forward-looking thinkers in the fields of tech, science and social change
  • 2012 TED Fellow. Presented two TED talks on our work. The now famous “Cockroach Beatbox” TED talk was selected to launch the TED K12 Education initiative entitled “TED Ed”
  • 2011 Start-Up Chile Fellow.  Recipient of $40k in grant funding to start operations in Latin America
  • 2011 Editors Choice Award: Maker Faire Detroit
  • 2010 Society for Neuroscience Next Generation Award for “outstanding contributions to public outreach and science education”
  • 2010 Society for Neuroscience Anuradha Rao Memorial Travel Award
  • 2010 Marine Biological Laboratory Neural Systems and Behavior course, Woods Hole, MA
  • 2008 The $100 Spike Project is one of four presentations highlighted out of 10,000 for the Journal Nature’s Neuroscience Podcast “Highlights of SfN 2008”