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Backyard Brains 2021 AI Fellowship

Call for HS Teachers and Undergraduates in Biology, Engineering and the Arts:

Calling all AI and neuroscience nerds (AND nerd wannabes): We are back! 

After taking a hiatus due to a global pandemic, we are proud to announce that we are returning with a very special guest star: TinyML! Tiny Machine Learning (TinyML) is a deep learning toolkit made for tinkers, educators and for those who want to know how machine learning really works… and we are excited about what it could mean to neuroscience educators!

For the first time ever, we are inviting K12 teachers to be a part of our summer program!  Learn how to integrate Machine Learning into your project-based lessons and help provide feedback on our teaching tools and project curricula! 

This summer, our fellowship program will focus on developing creative, wearable, and fun human-machine interfaces that can react with your brain waves, muscle, heart and eye movements using Deep Learning. You will learn the basics of neuroscience, computational thinking, machine learning, electronics, and will go from start to finish on developing your very own project. You will get support from our in house scientists and experts through every stage of your project.

About the 2021 Fellowship Program

Our AI Fellowship program will be designed around 2 cohorts.  The first are undergraduates with a background in Neuroscience, Art, Electrical, Mechanical or Computer Engineering, where they learn how to develop their own innovations, conduct fun experiments around computational neuroscience.  We are also recruiting High School teachers interested in learning about AI and how to teach hands-on AI lesson plans in their classroom. Teachers will participate remotely from around the country (1hr / week), and will help guide our projects for optimal use in the classroom. 

This fellowship is focused on developing computational skills. To do so, you will learn how to read and write peer-reviewed papers, discuss and plan around ethical concerns of using AI, learn how to develop a project and collect data, how to analyze and test results, how to make your own scientific poster and present your work to the academic communities, and finally how to speak to the public about your work. This program is unique: instead of working on a small part of the bigger project…  all fellow projects are yours alone!  We will support and guide you through, but you will experience everything from inception to publication… much like the life of a graduate researcher.  No prior research experience is necessary or required!

We develop video series around fellow’s experiments.  For example, we collaborated with TED on a show called “DIY Neuroscience” with each episode focusing on a fellow and their project:

10 week intensive program – 40h/week10 week virtual program – 1h/week
Neuroscience and AI training on siteOptional Neuroscience and AI training (online)
Receive research and development mentorship for individual projectAccess to all projects, based on interest
Goal: develop functioning prototypeGoal: develop lesson plans for your classroom
Potential first-author papers of project (IEEE, JUNE, PLoS One)Potential first-author papers of deployment (NSTA, NABT)
$15/h paid bi-weekly$500 for participation
Students Apply Here!Teachers Apply Here!

This year, we are planning to highlight what can be done with TinyML in a video series.  We will be working with the Harvard TinyML EdX course director, Dr. Vijay Janapa Reddi, to help identify roadblocks in the learning process, and will develop a the series to inform others of best practices and creative solutions to issues in particular datasets.  Depending on the outcome, these videos could be included in future EdX courses as “project highlights” or will be developed into its own series for educators. 

Why TinyML?

TinyML combines the power of embedded ultra-low systems (like our Arduino labs) and small sensors (like our EEG and EMG sensors) with the power of machine learning.  Finally, you can now harness the power of AI and carry it with you. What could you create if you could bring the power of Machine Learning in your pocket? Develop new brain-machine interfaces that can sense your finger positions from your EMGs? Capture a photo when AI detects you blinking (to playback the memories of your day that you missed)?  With low-power sensors and AI, the sky’s the limit. Don’t believe us? Take a look at Benjamin Cabé’s artificial nose!

Nose in action – from Benjamin Cabé‘s blog

Benjamin works on open-source IoT initiatives within Microsoft and started this in his spare time (originally to smell his sour-dough starters to predict the tastiness of his baguettes). Here was his reaction when we told him about developing videos around our 2021 AI Fellowship:

“Count me in! While the nose can be seen as a silly project, it has I think a lot of potential to share best practices when it comes to TinyML. Interestingly, I couldn’t get my head around what a neural network was or does until I put it in practice with this project, so I think folks will find it interesting to hear about my journey, pointers to get started, etc.”

You can sign up for the TinyML EdX course below to get a jump on how this technology works now.

backyard brains 2021 fellowship

Program Dates & Details

The 2021 Backyard Brains Summer Research Fellowship is an immersive 10-week program for undergraduates to participate in hands-on computational neuroscience research and experiment design.  Undergrads will be trained and mentored by our team of award winning neuroscientists and engineers, as well as feedback and guidance from K12 teachers.  Our goal is to hold the fellowship in person in downtown Ann Arbor, MI.  We have a large facility and makerspace that can host the fellows safely with social distancing over the summer.  But we are planning a contingency virtual setting should the COVID situation unexpectedly worsen.  Our research fellows are paid $15/hour, and the program will run from May 24 to July 30, 2021.

Our High School teacher cohort will participate virtually from across the country, and will be given training on both neuroscience and computational neuroscience techniques for the classroom. Teachers may also choose to listen in on all fellowship lectures and journal club discussions.  K12 teachers commit to providing guidance and feedback to improve projects to be classroom-friendly in our weekly 1 hour project meetings. Our goal is two-fold: 1) Determine what prior knowledge/background materials in computational neuroscience/AI are needed for teachers to successfully launch project-based lessons around TinyML. 2) Offer a variety of lesson plans that could be implemented as standalone offerings or in your already existing courses for 2022. All applications must be received by noon eastern time (12:00 PM, EST) on March 31, 2021 to be eligible, but admissions will start rolling on March 24… so don’t delay!

backyard brains 2021 fellowship

Your Mentors

This summer you will be trained by Ph.D. Neuroscientists, inventors, makers, seasoned engineers, and public speakers of Backyard Brains.  We will also have some amazing guest speakers.  

  • Pete Warden –  Lead of the TensorFlow Mobile/Embedded team at Google
  • Vijay Janapa Reddi – Associate Professor of School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) at Harvard University, director of the TinyML EdX course
  • Benjamin Cabé – Inventor of the TinyML nose.
  • Mackenzie Mathis – Inventor of “DeepLabCut” and Assistant Professor, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne (EPFL) 

Here’s a testimony from a former Fellow:

“The Backyard Brains summer internship is truly a once in a lifetime experience. Throughout the summer, we got to work as independent researchers on projects that one wouldn’t typically get to experience in a university setting, which allowed us to explore different realms of our scientific interests and grow immensely as scientists and individuals. I feel so fortunate to have been given the experience to pursue such a unique project, under the guidance of arguably the best boss in the entire world, Greg Gage. He provided guidance whenever we needed it while also allowing us the flexibility to execute a project from start to finish on our own terms. By the end of the summer, we were all able to showcase our work on an amazing platform, and conclude our projects feeling so confident in our abilities and excited to pursue whatever lie ahead for all of us as we returned to school/Work/etc.

I left the internship feeling more part of a family than a company and that is something I will have for the rest of my life. If I could do it over again, I would in a heartbeat!” – H. Smith, 2017 Fellow 

Become a BYB Research Fellow in 2021, and help start the compu-neuro-revolution!

backyard brains 2021 fellowship
Yes, we will be celebrating 4th of July together!


Where does the fellowship take place?

You will be located at the Backyard Brains headquarters in downtown Ann Arbor (map). You will also be working out of our MakerSpace lab in BYB Headquarters.  There is plenty of space for social distancing, as we will be limiting the participants this year to accommodate COVID protocols.  

Can international students participate?

Yes, we consider all students from all continents.

How much are the interns paid?

The weekly payment is $600/wk, paid bi-monthly.

How much is housing and can you help us find it?

While we do not pay for your housing, we are happy to inform you that summer housing is notoriously easy to find in Ann Arbor, as students leave for the summer and make available sublets. The price varies, but you can find sublet housing on craigslist for under $400. We recommend that you stay close to downtown/central campus.

I am not out of class until June. Can I start a bit later?

We feel that our interns need a full 10w to make significant progress on their projects. If you have a compelling reason on how this will not affect your project, we are willing to evaluate it on a case by case basis.

I am not an undergrad, can I still apply?

While our program is designed for undergraduates… If you are a college graduate, grad-student, or a super smart High Schooler, we will take your application under consideration.

I am not an K8 Teacher, can I still apply?

While we think High School students would most benefit, we are not the experts. If you have younger students that you feel could benefit, please do apply!

Is there time off for vacations (Research Fellows)?

While you will have ample free time in Ann Arbor, we ask that you make the commitment to stay on project for the entire length of the internship.

Are projects assigned to fellows or do the fellows get some autonomy in deciding the course of their research?

It depends on you.  Some fellows come with a lot of ideas for projects, others like to work with us to first determine what area of research they are interested in and we can provide suggestions.  While this is your project, you are never alone!  We can help you shape the project into something meaningful and obtainable… and give guidance to some research papers and ideas of how to get started.


Educational and Physical Activities for Stay at Home students – Get those BRAIN GAINS!

It isn’t official in many states yet, but let’s face it. The writing is on the walls: School is out for the year! Many students may think this is an opportunity to play unlimited Fortnite… or maybe Valorant if they were lucky enough to get a beta key! But as parents and educators, it is our responsibility to keep their minds and bodies engaged.

Many students may be continuing their year with online courses and activities. Many might not be. Social Distancing has become an unexpected civic duty – so what does that mean for learning?

First, there is a new emphasis on online learning. There are many great opportunities for students, even without their school district’s support, to use websites like Khan Academy to continue their expected grade-level education – and with motivation, likely even exceed it!

Khan Academy, and other similar online resources, are fantastic for all subjects, with one exception: Hands-On Science Labs. 

Fortunately, there are a number of affordable toys, tools, and devices currently available that can help teach science, coding, and engineering. We recommend Littlebits and Sphero for those trying to engage their stay-at-home students with introductory robotics, engineering, and computer science. But what MORE is out there… how can you push the MIND AND BODY?

Now, here comes the pitch. If you’re reading this blog, likely you are already enthusiastic about the opportunity to engage your students and children with Neuroscience labs and activities. But let’s not stop there, many students now are no longer attending gym classes, nor do they have access to exercise equipment. To counter the lack of hands-on science labs and the risk of an increasingly sedentary lifestyle among students, check out these awesome opportunities to engage your whole household in dynamic exercise science and engineering labs!

Feats of Strength! Analyze Muscle Strength and Fatigue and compete in your household.

Using the Muscle SpikerBox Pro you and your stay-at-home students can perform meaningful sports science experiments and turn it into an exercise competition!

First, some quick vocab: Isometric exercises are “static” strength training exercises where you “tense” your muscles but you don’t “move” them – for example, try pushing your hands together as hard as you can, while engaged as many arm muscles as possible! Phew, what a workout… but you didn’t budge an inch!

Isometric Strength

Following the getting started video for the Muscle SpikerBox Pro, let’s transform these observations into an experiment!

  • Begin by setting up the electrodes to record from the subject’s dominant-arm bicep (like in the picture above!)
  • Have the subject curl their first/forearm up until it comfortably reaches the peak of its range of motion
  • Now begin recording, and ask the subject to flex their bicep as large as they can!
  • The recording might not last very long – That’s fine! Scroll back in SpikeRecorder, or open the recording, and select a window (hold right click and drag) that lasts for about half a second near the peak of the signal.
  • Record the RMS value – that is your peak signal strength!

Perform this experiment and compare your results with every member of your family! Who can score the highest?

Now, twice a week (Perhaps Monday and Thursday!)Perform the experiment and record the data on a whiteboard or large sheet of paper somewhere in the house. Keep track over time and see if daily exercise improves your max signal strength over time!

Muscle Fatigue

Strength is a fun and obvious metric, but it isn’t “normalized” by age, size, or athleticism. Muscular Endurance, however, can be “normalized,” meaning that it doesn’t matter who is the “strongest,” but rather, who can maintain muscular contraction proportional to their own strength over time. This makes Muscle Fatigue a very competitive metric between anyone!

Follow the instructions on the Modeling Rates of Fatigue experiment page. Add this metric to your score-sheet you started with the Muscle Strength competition! Is there a relationship between top strength and top endurance? Do they both improve linearly? These are exciting questions that you and your household can investigate by recording data as frequently as you’d like (we recommend at least bi-weekly!)

Resting Heart Rate

If you are a runner, or know runners, you might be clued into a peculiar competition amongst cardio-athletes… Who has the lowest resting Heart Rate?

A low-resting heart rate is typically indicative of strong cardio-vascular health! Use the Heart and Brain SpikerBox and follow the details in the experiment here: Record Heart Action Potentials!

Collect data from everyone in your household following these two conditions:

  • Resting heart rate
  • Heart rate following 10 push ups, 10 sit ups, and 20 jumping jacks.

Twice a week (Perhaps Monday and Thursday! Perform the experiment and record the data on a whiteboard or large sheet of paper somewhere in the house.

Lastly, a Lesson in Empathy and Engineering

If you have a typically abled student, have them spend a day with an “arm tied behind their back” at the end of the day, the student can journal about the experience, what was easier, what was harder, and what they might feel they had previously taken for granted.

Have them specifically detail THREE problems that they encountered.

Or, if your students are non-typically abled, have them describe and detail THREE mobility challenges they face.

Then, following the instructions for the DIY Neuroprosthetic Kit – have your students build and control their first prosthetic!

Then have them come up with engineering design solutions for a prosthetic that could solve the problems they detailed. Use arts and crafts materials to create some prototype models, then use the servo motor from the DIY Neuroprosthetic Kit to try and make a working prototype – check out a great example below!

The Tools to Enable these Experiences

Muscle SpikerBox Pro

Heart and Brain SpikerBox

The Claw

DIY Neuroprosthetic Kit

Looking for More Student Project Inspiration?

Check out these other blog posts featuring student research to guide and spark your own investigations:

Vsauce’s “Mindfield” Episode Feat. Backyard Brains Is Now FREE to Watch!

Are you a fan of DIY neuroscience or science in general? If yes, you’re bound to enjoy the long-awaited episode of the world-famous Youtuber Vsauce’s series “Mind Field” featuring some of our staple experiments!

Until recently, the show used to require a Youtube Premium subscription, but now you can enjoy all three seasons for free.

So what’s all the fuss about? 

If you’re new to the “Mind Field” show, you’re in for loads of fun and tons of knowledge. Vsauce is a celebrity educator who took it upon himself to explain complex scientific notions in a dynamic and interesting manner, with a tinge of weird and quirky scientific humor. Kind of what we are doing here at Backyard Brains! So it only makes sense that our co-founder Tim Marzullo was a perfect addition to the show. (Check out this blog post to see how much fun he had while shooting the episode.)

mindfield episode
Tim, Michael and Alie giving us a glimpse into their electrifying experience

The episode titled “The Electric Brain” demonstrates another instance of superb cockroach surgery followed by a bug race! You can see our RoboRoach in action as it hijacks a cockroach’s nervous system to send electrical impulses to their antennae. Tim, Michal and Alie controlled the bugs via their smartphones by, you’ve guessed right, swiping left and right. 

It goes on to confirm that swiping got a whole new cultural meaning with the RoboRoach gizmo. (Just remember not to use that hack on Tinder!)

Apart from our own nerdy contribution, the episode is full to the brim of bizarre and even macabre details from the history of neuroscience that will make you totally fall in love with the field – that is, if you haven’t already.

The video also demonstrates how humans can control other humans by turning them into a real puppet show. It makes for a perfect prank that you can perform on your friends.

Check out this and all other episodes of “Mind Field”, and hit that “Share” button to spread the word!