Backyard Brains Logo

Neuroscience for Everyone!

+1 (855) GET-SPIKES (855-438-7745)


items ()

Can Neuroscience Help You Fence Better? Middle-School Scientist Wins State Science Fair Using SpikerBox

can neuroscience help you fence better
Supriya and Sujit Nair establishing a new fencing technique: Neurofencing

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: 

  1. sport a set of electrodes of a Neuron SpikerBox to capture an EMG signal from her right hand and right leg as she lunges,
  2. measure her muscles’ reaction time from rest to touche in controlled circumstances, with and without 15-minute warm-ups, and compare the findings.

The results came in and won her the First Place Trophy at the annual Washington State Science and Engineering Fair and a nomination for this year’s Broadcom Masters, STEM competition for the nation’s top talented middle-schoolers!

Neurofencing: How It All Began

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.

Supriya Nair Applying Neuroscience to Assess Fatigue and Optimize Performance for Young Fencers - Can Neuroscience Help You Fence Better?
Slide from Supriya’s award-winning work titled “Applying Neuroscience to Assess Fatigue and Optimize Performance for Young Fencers”

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!


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. 

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!

byb remote labs

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.

Location of US schools where educators are already using BYB tools.

Apply Now for IEEE Brain Virtual Summer School – YaIEEE!

A two-week online course on neural engineering spruced up with some signal processing and machine learning – is there a better way to spend two weeks of August? Plus, you’ll tinker with a BYB Heart and Brain SpikerBox – and you’ll get to keep it too! Full details here.

If you’re as hyped up about FREE neuroscience education opportunities as we are, you’ll want to know that this course will teach you:

  • Neurophysiology and brain organization
  • Brain data acquisition and signal processing
  • Basic and advanced neural coding using machine learning

All lectures are conveniently divided into AM and PM sessions, so your brain can have some me-time in between studying – why, the brain of course!

Best of all, it’s not just theorizing but a great deal of hands-on experience, thanks to our little pal SpikerBox. Since the course will be held online in the best tradition of social distancing, you are welcome to apply from anywhere in the world!

Are There Any Prerequisites?

When we say that neuroscience is for everyone, we really mean it. But this is an advanced course, so if you want to have a really great time, you do need some basic programming knowledge (Matlab and/or Python, as always). And, of course, knowing your way around linear algebra, calculus and probability is a big yaIEEE.

Kudos to the people who kindly made it possible, José C. Príncipe from University of Florida and Yiwen Wang from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

The application deadline of 17th July is nigh and only 20 lucky students will get to enroll, so you’d better hurry!

While at it, be sure to check out the IEEE Brain Initiative treasure trove of resources on neuroscience, including their phenomenal podcast, webinars, TED Talks, and more.