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2024 Summer Research Fellowship: High-Schoolers Design Brain-Machine Interfaces

2024 summer research fellowship in action

Move aside, air guitars! Thanks to one of our latest projects, it is now possible to air-conduct music so that it actually changes in tempo and volume as you move your arms.

This so-called neuro:baton is just one of 12 cool projects being developed on our 2024 Summer Research Fellowship that’s firing up as we speak. Within the following two weeks, 20 high-schoolers will be designing and/or honing these experiments in small teams. Like last year, this Fellowship is happening in Belgrade, Serbia. Also like last year, it will result in a handful of brand new experiments—some to be published in our new book on the inner workings of our mind and consciousness!

Others will hopefully make it to reputable peer-reviewed journals. (Yes, we can’t get enough of high-schoolers publishing papers ever since we nailed it on our first try.)

The talented kids recruited from Belgrade’s high schools are being mentored by two tiers of support: four undergraduates from the University of Michigan who piloted some of these experiments, plus our resident scientists and engineers.

neuro baton project
This is Sofia, one of the undergrad mentors and designer of the neuro:baton.

But making your arm muscles mightier than Herbert von Karajan’s isn’t the only thing our Fellows are working on. Other projects include:

  • a robotic keyboard that’s to be controlled by leg muscles,
  • Spiker-Man armband that flings web when you flex your fingers,
  • glasses that detect your eye blinks,
  • and more…

Say Hello to neuro:bit

You’ve guessed it by now: there’s a new gizmo in the Backyard Brains toolbox. It’s called neuro:bit, and it’s a tool that lets anyone easily build brain-machine interfaces (BMIs, also called BCIs or brain-computer interfaces). It interfaces with electrical signals from your body, and integrates with micro:bit, BBC’s award-winning educational microcomputer!

The only other thing you need is our standard orange cable with 2 recording electrodes and a ground.

neuro:bit, backyard brains tool

We’re putting together a repository with product documentation and experiments, where the new experiments will be added too. Check it out here, and stay tuned for more BYB news!


Can First Responders Handle Stress Better? Teen Investigates and Wins Science Fairs Using Human SpikerBox

Sofia R. De Lorenzo presenting her work on stress tolerance first responders
Sofia presents her work. Photo her own

Related Post: High School Students Publish a Paper on Plant Physiology in a Notable Journal

It’s tested and proven: Paramedics, firefighters, police officers and other first responders are almost twice as likely to develop PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) at some point in their lives than the rest of us. Still, many of them are either unaware of it or they go on with their lives without ever reporting or treating it. Worse yet, as reports have it, they are 1.39 times more prone to suicide than others.

While heroes of our communities are busy helping others, there’s someone who thinks of them. Sofia R. De Lorenzo, a teen attending Tucson High Magnet School in Arizona, turned to science to find out if stress tolerance in first responders could actually be greater than in civilians. But her aim went beyond asking the right question and finding an answer to it. The overarching goal of her research was to spread awareness of the underreported psychological impact in first responders.

And it just so happened that her research caught the ear of many! Encouraged by her school teacher Jeremy Jonas and mentored by John Moore from the Ricoy Lab, she ran a poster presentation and penned down her findings in a research paper. A bunch of awards would ensue: the SARSEF Fair Grand Award in Behavioral and Social Sciences, APA Certificate of Achievement in Research in Psychological Science, Easterseals Blake Foundation Top Award and The Betsy Bolding Top Award.

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High School Students Publish a Paper on Plant Physiology in a Notable Journal

high schoolers from chile doing plant experiments
The students doing the experiments. Photos by Abraham Martínez Gutiérrez, official photographer of the high school.

— Written by Tim Marzullo —

In an article we previously published in June 2022 about our scientific paper that dealt with play behavior in fish, I concluded at the end of the article:

I think it is possible for novices and high school students to publish papers (and it is the dream and goal of our team)… That is why we are planning an experiment. We want to publish with a school in Santiago, Chile, collaborating with second and third year high school students. We are collecting data on electrical signals in plants… If it works, we will tell you…

Dear readers, 21 months after writing this, the day has arrived. We did it! Our paper recently appeared in the academic journal “Plant Signaling and Behavior” about our experiments in electrophysiology in plants, with 5 high school students as the first authors. You can read the paper here.

A library of electrophysiological responses in plants - a model of transversal education and open science
The beginning of the published paper, with high school students in the front line

Electrical signals in plants? What? Yes, it is understudied and often misunderstood, but plants do have signals similar to the electrical signals we have in our hearts, muscles, and brain. However, they are much slower (1,000-15,000 times slower). But what are they for? In the famous examples of the venus flytrap and the sensitive mimosa, the electrical signals coordinate their fast movements, but electrical signals also exist in plants that do not move quickly, such as tomatoes, chili peppers, basil, etc.

One of the functions of electrical signals in plants is as an alarm signal. For example, if a herbivore is eating a plant, an electrical signal passes through the branches saying “we are under attack” and the plant can synthesize bitter compounds so that the leaves taste bitter. A plant cannot escape when under attack, and it has the problem that it is “stuck in place forever” (i.e., it cannot run away from a threat, or fight physically), but there are protection systems and defenses (thorns, poisons, production of bitter compounds, etc.).

Dear reader, the day has arrived. We did it! Our paper about our experiments in electrophysiology in plants recently appeared in the academic journal “Plant Signaling and Behavior,” with 5 high school students as the first authors.

As electrophysiology in plants is understudied, we wanted to further investigate electrical signals in plants that do not necessarily move rapidly. And with that idea, we began to work on an ambitious project with the (high school) Colegio Alberto Blest Gana (CABG) in San Ramón, Santiago.

But before discussing the results, we must give a little more context about the scientific publication process.

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