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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. 

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.

Dr. Greg Gage joins Dr. Anthony Fauci and other experts for Free X-STEM Sessions on “Science that Saves Lives”

Welcome To X-STEM All Access

Join us on Monday, May 18th (5/18/2020) for a special live-stream featuring Backyard Brains co-founder Greg Gage, breakthrough cancer researcher Dr. Mika Sovak, and Dr. Anthony Fauci as they address the subject Science that Saves Lives. Register for the free event HERE!

These live presentations and Q&As are part of a series of talks which kicks off TOMORROW (5/12/2020) – As described by the event’s website

X-STEM All Access – presented by AstraZeneca – is an entertaining, educational, and interactive online STEM experience for 6-12th graders. Through a series of daily livestream events, students will hear from an exclusive group of visionaries who aim to inspire kids about careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.

“Our moderator, Justin Shaifer (Mr. Fascinate), will take kids on a STEM adventure that is anything but boring with a new set of engaging speakers, brain breaks and Q&A’s each day.”

A Great Remote Lesson Opportunity!

Teachers, this is a great opportunity for your students to engage with leaders in their respective fields of research and science! Focused on a K-12 audience, these presentations are certain to educate and inspire.

To turn this into a “grade-able” opportunity, we recommend students prepare a journal entry before and after the presentation following these guidelines:

Pre-Talk Journal Entry

  • Which speaker are you most interested in hearing from?
  • Describe their background, specialty, and contribution to science and public health
  • Write a question you’d like to hear them answer

Post-Talk Journal Entry

  • Which was the most fascinating presentation to you? Why?
  • What did you learn that surprised you?
  • Did you get an answer to your question?
  • What new questions do you have?

These simple prompts can kick-start a responsive lesson! If your students are interested in hearing answers from Dr. Greg-Gage, email us a compilation of their questions at hello@backyardbrains.com – and we’ll compile the questions and follow up with answers!


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!