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Harvard Study Reveals Our Hands-On Remote Labs Really Work

byb remote labs

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. 

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Khan Academy contest offers MASSIVE Scholarship for Student Videos “Explaining Challenging Concepts”

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

Pre-Teen Hacker explaining her neuroscience-inspired Hackathon Project to a Judge

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 hello@backyardbrains.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!


How the SpikerBox Revolutionized K12 STEM Education… and just what is a SpikerBox?

How the SpikerBox Revolutionized K12 STEM Education…

and just what is a SpikerBox?

Backyard Brains exists today because of a once-lofty goal: To turn a $40,000+ rack of graduate-level electronics into a $100 kit that students could use in the classroom to perform real, hands-on neuroscience experiments. A decade later, we have developed four lines of products that can get you involved in many aspects of neuroscience!

Enter the SpikerBox! SpikerBoxes are our name for the educational electronics we developed, a low-cost bioamplifier that can record “spikes,” or action potentials. Spikes are the universal signals which bring life to thought, sensation, movement, behavior, actions, reactions… everything that makes us living creatures!

The SpikerBox:
Students say Yes to Neuroscience!

Thanks to SpikerBoxes, more than 45,000 people have seen real, live action potentials, either from their own body, somebody else’s, or from an insect or plant! And those are just the people we’ve counted… Since we began shipping in 2009, nearly 13,000 SpikerBoxes have hit the streets, bringing neuroscience to students, hobbyists, and researchers on every continent and in over 80 countries (Recently, we sent our first kit ever to Cyprus!)

Teachers we work with are excited to bring hands-on science experiments into the classroom. We offer free educational materials that pair with all of our kits, and we are developing curricula to help bring neuroscience into specific programs like Next Generation Science Standards and Project Lead The Way! Coming soon, we are expanding our Teacher Portal to help you share Backyard Brains with your students. In addition, we developed a free, open-source spike recording software (Called… you guessed it, SpikeRecorder) that lets you use the tech you already have (Chromebooks, iPads, PC, Android Phones) to record and analyze the signals your SpikerBox is recording. Our SpikerBoxes come in a few flavors, depending on the signal you want to read.


The Neuron SpikerBox

First off, the Neuron SpikerBox. This is the SpikerBox that launched 10,000 ships. Our O.G. product. Before we were a company, we were simply a goal: to create an affordable neuroscience kit to increase accessibility for younger learners, and that goal manifested itself as the Neuron SpikerBox. It allows students to record from the nervous systems of invertebrates, like cockroaches, crickets, and grasshoppers, and perform experiments to learn about how neurons and the nervous system work.

It is also an important segue into using animal models and model organisms to learn about our own nervous systems! We wouldn’t have models without model organisms, as many developments in neuroscience were made by studying the nervous systems of invertebrates and other, relatively “simple,” organisms. It is also an opportunity to talk about ethics: our cockroach prep for the Neuron SpikerBox is non-lethal, but it is invasive. A good conversation to have with any budding scientist is the measured, societal cost-benefit analysis of doing experiments like these.

What can a student learn by performing experiments with the Neuron SpikerBox? They will learn about neurons, action potentials, and how these spikes of electricity become meaningful signals to the organisms in which they are present.

Our Neuron SpikerBox is a fantastic learning tool, but it is also a powerful research tool. We have published several scientific articles featuring data which we recorded from grasshoppers, dragonflies, and other creatures using our Neuron SpikerBox.


The Muscle SpikerBox

After we perfected our bioamplifier for model organisms, we wanted to get a little more personal. After all, what better way to learn about science than to learn how your own body works? The Muscle SpikerBox records spikes in the form of Electromyograms (EMGs). EMGs are recordings of the electrical activity in our muscles! When our brain sends a signal to our muscles to move, there is an electrical synapse where the nerve meets the muscle, and our sensors record that! Used in medicine, sports science, and physiology, EMGs are an exciting way to introduce students to practical science where they are the experiment! For example, a great first experiment is recording varying rates of muscle fatigue. In fact, we had a fifth grader win her district Science Fair by comparing muscle fatigue between her left and right arms!


The Heart and Brain SpikerBox

This SpikerBox gets to the real heart of Neuroscience. It is a multi-functional bioamplifier that focuses on your involuntary nervous system, the automatic responses that keep us going. The heartbeat is the electrical signal that most students are already familiar with through pop culture. Many of them could roughly draw what a heartbeat signal should look like, and they know a flatline is, well, very bad. Drawing from this intuitive knowledge, it’s exciting to show students their heart rates, explain to them what exactly that spikey shape they’ve seen on TV means, and teach them about the electrical impulses which keep our pulse up.

Then, there is the Brain. With this dual-function SpikerBox, you can have students see and experiment with their actual brain waves or Electroencephalograms (EEGs). No, I’m not talking about EMG artefacts or some cheesy “Brain Power” game. Our intro experiment with this kit has students see the activity of their vision center, the occipital lobe. When your eyes are open, they are processing a lot of activity, but when they are closed, that part of the brain calms down. Here we can see Alpha Waves, kind of like the brain’s “on-hold” pattern, emerge. Our co-founders never saw EEG in real life until after they had already received their doctorates. Just let that sink in. Elementary schoolers today have access to tech that was too inconvenient to demonstrate to graduate students just several years ago! Talk about a NeuroRevolution!


The Plant SpikerBox

Finally, we have our SpikerBox that is harnessing the power of electrophysiology in uncharted territory: plants! When we ask students about what makes us alive, many answer “brains.” When asked to expand on that, many say the fact that we can move around. But what about the Venus Flytrap, a plant that can move in response to stimulation, without an ostensible brain? With this SpikerBox we can unlock the secret electrical language used in plants, demonstrating fundamental neuroscience principles in an unconventional model organism, and spreading the wonder of understanding how living creatures work!

Experiments!

The SpikerBoxes are our way of making advanced neuroscience accessible to the masses. To facilitate this and to cut user costs, all of our experiments, software, and educational materials are available for free! Check out our experiments and figure out which SpikerBox is right for you, your classroom, or your backyard science lab! What will you discover?