Start the presses! Backyard Brains has a new publication! Our Neurorobot paper is titled “Neurorobotics Workshop for High School Students Promotes Competence and Confidence in Computational Neuroscience.” You can read the article in its entirety on the Frontiers in Neurorobotics website–because we believe neuroscience knowledge is for everyone, and no one should have to pay for access! The paper details our recent work developing the methodologies essential for making neurorobotics accessible in high school classrooms.
We began the Neurorobot project in 2018, when notable neuroscientist Christopher Harris joined the team with his gaggle of “brain-based rugrats” in tow. The Neurorobot aimed to bring neurorobotics more enticing to high school learners, and we quickly started to brainstorm (pun intended!) how we would implement such experiments in schools.
The Neurorobot Workshops
Chris ran the workshop at 2 high schools, sharing his 1-week Neurorobot workshop with nearly 300 students total. The students piloted the Neurorobot App developed for controlling the bots, and were able to provide feedback on the successes and shortcomings of the workshops.
The workshops were targeted to give students a base of knowledge and increase their confidence on the scientific topics studied. Both prior to and after the week-long sessions, students were presented a quiz, and their responses were analyzed for retention and comfort level. We found a significant improvement on all content questions, showcasing the effectiveness of our learning tools.
The Neurorobot Fellowship Project
If you recall, one of our fellows spent his summer working on the Neurorobot project. Ilya worked on coding the machine learning and computer vision aspects of the bot. Throughout the summer, he made progress posts, which can be found below:
There is nothing like hands-on application to showcase room for improvement, and our Neurorobotics Workshop definitely did so! We ran into some unexpected issues and tried to adapt on the fly, and we are so excited to keep this momentum going. Based on our successes, we hope to pilot more Neurorobotics programs in the future! Is your school interested? If you would like more information on how to get involved, email email@example.com!
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!
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?
What did you do with your weekends when you were 10 years old? We bet it wasn’t participate in a women-driven hackathon where you developed your own functioning neural robot! (We bet you wish you did, though.) Arushi Nath, age 10, recently participated in Elle Hacks 2020, an all-women hackathon hosted by York University in Canada. Arushi saw our DIY Neurosci TED episode and was fascinated by our findings about dragonflies, nature’s most accurate hunter, and she decided to make a bot that mimicked dragonfly behavior.
Dragonflies are highly accurate hunters due to their ability to sense their prey, using dedicated neurons on each side of its brain, and Arushi wanted to represent this sensing with her bot. Using an Arduino, mini servos, and a breadboard, Arushi devised a Dragonfly Bot that could sense light from either the left “eye” or right “eye” and stimulate corresponding outputs. In nature, these outputs would move the dragonfly left or right toward its target. In two days, Arushi was able to build and code a working robot that could simulate basic dragonfly visual processes!
Arushi isn’t the only one in her family that digs science, either. The Nath family from Toronto, Canada created their “maker-family enterprise” known as HotPopRobot in 2014 after they won a hackathon together. You can follow along with HotPopRobot on Twitter at @wonrobot, for more details about their events and projects (we will definitely be giving them a follow)! Arushi has been attending maker events since she was 5 years old, and she is thrilled to be able to participate all on her own now.
It is wonderful that more and more events like Elle Hacks are popping up across the scientific community in recent years. Elle Hacks centers women in science, creating places for typically underrepresented individuals to develop their interests and foster connections, and they make it possible for girls like Arushi to get a head start on figuring out their passions.
At Backyard Brains, we are in the business of democratizing neuroscience, and we feel incredibly validated when our past projects inspire kids to take the initiative and grab the reins of their scientific future. We hope Arushi continues to hack her way into adulthood!