Every fencer will hear it countless times: warm-ups are a MUST. Do them and they’ll bump up your performance. Skip them and you may end up hurting yourself.
But not every fencer will ask why! Supriya Nair, a busy sixth-grader from Redmond, WA, decided to conduct an experiment and find out what the correlation is between exercise and performance in her favorite sport. Where other people see a self-evident truth that doesn’t need any questioning, this scientifically-minded middle-schooler saw a hypothesis that she can poke through to test it, quantify it, and prove it!
And what better way to do that than to:
sport a set of electrodes of a Neuron SpikerBox to capture an EMG signal from her right hand and right leg as she lunges,
measure her muscles’ reaction time from rest to touche in controlled circumstances, with and without 15-minute warm-ups, and compare the findings.
“I’d always hear it from coaches that I needed to do pre-bout exercise. But there was no quantitative data that would support it, just qualitative. And frankly, I was not very disciplined in warm-ups,” Supriya told us in a Zoom interview. That’s how she came up with the idea to eavesdrop on her muscles’ electrical activity using the SpikerBox her dad got her, and measure it to see whether it adds up to the hypothesis. And boom! Pre-bout exercise lasting only 15 minutes can improve a fencer’s performance by a whopping 15%, she discovered.
More warm-ups for her, now that she has it in writing!
Supriya’s little brother Sujit, a resourceful fourth-grader who is into astrophysics, acted as one of her test subjects and helped her set up the experiment.
But how does a middle-schooler go from defining a problem to positing a hypothesis, to designing and conducting an experiment?
Supriya, who wants to be a neurologist when she grows up, got into neuroscience last year when she suddenly found herself with lots of time on her hands during distance learning. So this 12-year-old jumped straight into university-level neuroscience MOOCs from Unis of Harvard, Chicago, Emory and Duke.
But these courses and laurels are just the beginning of Supriya’s journey through the majestic world of action potentials. She and her brother are getting a new experiment underway to complement the former and examine what the muscles, brain AND heart do when you fence.
“Now that we saw what happens at a muscular scale when you fence, we want to see how busy the brain is. This time, we’ll work with flèche, which is a fencing move where you explode out and run into your opponent. But heart needs to be added into the equation too because if it doesn’t work properly, our muscles will get tired and experience peripheral fatigue. Our goal is to correlate these three – brain, heart and muscles – and see what links them together in fencing.”
(We’re not making this up – that’s really how she talks!)
Fingers crossed for Supriya and Sujit! We’ll revisit them in June to see what new scientific insights they can share with us. Stay tuned!
Fully remote, fully in-person, or somewhere in a sweet spot between the two. Those are the main safety concerns that are being laid right now in front of the decision makers, on behalf of students, parents, teachers and everyone around them, right at the kickoff of the new academic year. But whichever model prevails, it might turn out to be a temporary fix to a permanent problem. Furthermore, it doesn’t provide an answer to the key educational concern. How to empower the remote so that it can fully substitute the in-person if need be?
This issue is especially relevant to teaching STEM. How will an educator facilitate hands-on, project based learning without projects that students can actually get their hands on? In other words, is the “learning” part of the “distance learning” equation going to be reluctantly surrendered to a lesser evil scenario?
Even as COVID-19 begins to stretch out from a single season into an era, it’s becoming clear that distance learning might be here to stay. But it’s not a reason to despair if you’re a teacher or a parent, or both. Quite the contrary – there are ways to leverage all the good aspects of learning from the comfort of one’s couch and still provide hands-on (or should we say: gloves-on?) engagement.
A groundbreaking study by researchers from Purdue and Harvard Universities (DeBoer et al., 2017) has shown it, using our very own Neuron SpikerBox kit. Online learning, the study has found, yields remarkable results when complemented with at-home lab kits. Students who enrolled in a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) and used our bioamplifiers got better grades than their peers who weren’t equipped with the lab kits. More importantly, their self-efficacy was three times higher than that of their counterparts. Both groups followed the same syllabus; both watched videos, took quizzes and virtual simulated labs. The only difference was the chance to do-it-yourself, which yet again turned out to be a source and key to confidence.
This study has confirmed that remote labs have potential to not only act as a playground in which to tinker and breathe life into theoretical concepts, but also to boost students’ self-confidence and motivation. The labs helped these students realize that they do have a say in science, as well as the means to say it, regardless of their background, experience and expertise. Not to brag, but that’s what we’ve been saying all along!
These humble lab kits can fit in a box, be sanitized, run on batteries, and travel in backpacks. Available at a fraction of the cost of other physiological recording devices, they still offer all the functionality of big scientific labs with $40,000 worth of equipment. Their design is simple enough not to intimidate school kids. Still, they are powerful enough to find a place even in postdoc research labs, basements, bedrooms or backyards. Science doesn’t discriminate, and neither should its tools.
In fact, these lab kits are the ones that added so much weight to our trophy cabinet. The largest neuroscience society in the world, Society for Neuroscience, has recognized our “outstanding contributions to public outreach and science education”, giving us their Next Generation Award a full decade ago. For our work in promoting citizen science, we got the United States “Champions of Change” award at the White House back in 2013. Together with HarvardX, we developed the largest neuroscience MOOC in the world, “Fundamentals of Neuroscience”, with over 350,000 students enrolled to date. The most recent accolade is the prestigious Tibbetts Award by U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), for “beacons of promise and models of excellence in high technology”. Our work has been featured on TED, Netflix, and CNN, to name just a few.
Our electrophysiology kits have already made it to hundreds of educational institutions across the USA. Manuel Diaz-Rios, Professor of Neuroscience and Biology at Bowdoin College, plans to use them as part of his online teaching strategy. He believes that the greatest challenges of remote teaching are equity, engagement, and accessibility. “Equity comes in the form of, for example, providing equal access to educational equipment/tools and comparable internet service to all students in your class. Engagement involves creating a remote learning experience that is not exhausting, one-dimensional and thus not boring to students. And when talking about accessibility, I mean that you as their instructor must be as accessible to your students as possible taking into consideration special needs among them and different time zones,” Manuel tells us. BYB tools will help him tackle at least two of these problems. They are distributed to all of his students along with internet connectivity tools, and will stimulate student engagement.
Elementary and high school students will also benefit from Remote Labs. Bernadette Barragan, a 12th-grade science teacher at George H.W. Bush New Tech Odessa (TX), believes that devising engaging activities is one of the greatest challenges for remote educators. Students are already overwhelmed with tech chores that lull them into passivity, so engagement and hands-on experience will be essential in their science classes. That’s exactly where at-home lab kits jump in. “My students are spending a good portion of the day staring at a screen, and having to attend 8 different virtual meetings a day; microphone on mute, mainly watching and listening. Thankfully, they will be able to take home lab equipment that allows them to actively participate and have a valuable hands-on learning experience. As a result, students will make stronger and authentic connections with the lesson,” Bernadette says.
The Khan Academy “2020 Breakthrough Junior Challenge” comes at a time when student engagement in STEM is more critical than ever. If you are a remote student or are a professional (or maybe parent!) educator attempting to transition rapidly into remote/home teaching strategies, this could be an excellent opportunity to turn an at-home-assignment into a tremendous opportunity for your students!
Khan Academy’s 2020 Breakthrough Junior Challenge
This challenge encourages students to investigate a complex idea and then create a video that explains it in an interesting, accessible, and eloquent way!
Here is a description direct from Khan Academy:
“We’re proud to partner with the Breakthrough Junior Challenge video contest again this year. Students ages 13 through 18 are invited to create a short (under three minutes) video explaining a challenging concept in physics, mathematics, or the life sciences in an engaging, illuminating, and creative way. This year, there is an additional COVID-19 category, and students are encouraged to help educate the world about this global health crisis by sharing the science or math behind the causes, impacts and potential solutions. If you win, you’ll receive the college scholarship, your teacher will receive a $50,000 prize, and your school will get a new $100,000 science lab!”
You read that last sentence right: The winning student will receive a $250,000 scholarship, their teacher will win $50,000 worth of funding, and the school will receive $100,000 worth of funding for the renovation or development of a new science lab!
Making Complex Ideas Simple
he mission to take the complexity out of science education is the heart of our work at Backyard Brains. Working with students from first grade through graduate school, Science Communication (or #SciComm) is at the forefront of our minds and work.
If it tickles your fancy, we encourage you to create a submission for the Khan Academy contest featuring an explanation related to Neuroscience (Perhaps even with hands-on demonstrations using our kits)!
If you are a student or a teacher who is seriously interested in using our resources to help create a powerful submission video, do feel free to email us at email@example.com and we will do what we can to coach and support you!
The TED Talk Approach
When we work with student research fellows, public presentations of their research are a part of the gig. In fact, “teaching” a subject you are attempting to master is a necessary learning tool! Attempting to explain a concept to someone else makes you realize your own knowledge-gaps (There isn’t an educator alive who hasn’t been stopped dead in their tracks by a seemingly simple question).
Here are 3 tips to a successful “science explanation” that will keep things fun, fascinating, and snappy:
Focus on the phenomenon
Use simple language
Emphasize the Importance and Urgency of your topic
Can you see how Dr. Gage used those three tips in action in the video above? It works!
Additional Example Resources
For some inspiration, ideas, and to learn from example, check out some of our video resources below, with a few different kinds of examples!