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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!


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!