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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!


Two 99 Million-Year-Old Cockroaches Found in Amber – and They Uncannily Resemble Modern Roaches

Kafka couldn’t have imagined it better. Two specimens of the cockroach phylum were going about their business in a Myanmar cave about 99 million years ago. One day they got trapped in tree resin, which then turned to amber and preserved their little bodies to this day to tell us an impressive tale of time, life, death, and metamorphosis.

99 million-year-old cockroaches
Source: Gondwana Research

Both belonged to the Nocticolidae family, which comprises a couple dozen cockroach species inhabiting caves and caverns. Our small but hardy hairy-legged friends probably even managed to survive the mass extinction event that killed off the dinosaurs along with three-quarters of all life on the planet. The researchers, who recently published their findings in Gondwana Research, labeled the two fellas “the only known dinosaur age cave survivors”. It goes to show that cave roaches are far older than we used to think. Before this discovery, it was commonly held that they date back to 65 million years ago (the Cenozoic era).

From now on, we should know better than to underestimate them.

Let’s Get to Know Them Better!

The two species now carry the names of Mulleriblattina bowangi and Crenocticola svadba. While being pretty similar to each other, the Mulleriblattina seems to have been confined to the cave life, whereas Crenocticola was a bit more curious and probably ventured outside the cave.

The planet was not a friendly place back in the Mesozoic era. But our roaches didn’t seem to mind. Resilient as they were, they developed adequate traits that would allow them to thrive in damp and dark cave environments where no other creatures are known to have existed back then. Their very long antennae allowed them to better explore their gloomy surroundings, where eyes were almost useless. The wings got stunted since they no longer needed them. The insects weren’t brown or black like their modern-day domestic relatives, but yellowish or even transparent. What use is color anyway in a place that never gets any light?

What’s even more amazing is that all of those features make the Mulleriblattina look strikingly similar to its modern cave relatives. Some things never change, and neither does the roaches’ penchant for darkness.

Scary or Not So Scary?

By this point, you’re probably beginning to wonder about their size. No reason to shiver on that account! They were actually very small – just under 5 mm (roughly 1/4in). That wouldn’t make you cringe to the depths of your soul now, would it?

The length of their limbs probably would though. Especially the cerci (a pair of appendages protruding from underneath the bug’s rear end), which were significantly longer than in your average domestic roach.

But what did they eat? While the dinosaurs were still there, these two beauties may have feasted on their droppings that they would have found near the cave entrances. Once the gigantic reptiles went extinct, they probably made do with bats’ poop. How’s that for adaptability? The scientists even spotted some particles of undigested food in their lower abdomen. Ew!

There’s another mystery the researchers had to face. How did the tree resin make it into the cave to form amber? There is no exact answer. It probably poured down through cracks and crevices on the cave’s roof. Nature sure is resourceful while taking its course.

Mulleriblattina bowangi
Mulleriblattina bowangi – Source: Gondwana Research

Let’s Get Serious for a Moment… Could We Operate on These Ancient Bugs?

You guessed right – this beautiful story about ancient roaches trapped in amber is particularly exciting for us roach-loving nerds at Backyard Brains. As you may or may not know, we’ve been harboring a lifelong appreciation and even love for roaches of all shapes, sizes, and ages.

So it’s only natural that our first thought after reading the Gondwana Research paper was whether a Mulleriblatina or a Crenocticola could possibly carry a RoboRoach backpack. Alas, both were small and, frankly, too fragile for so heavy a burden. (Okay, maybe we could build a peewee backpack for them to sport). Our next concern was: if they lived here and now, would they readily lend themselves to one of our experiments? We weren’t happy with the answer. Their legs would have been too short and slender for us to operate on.

Our “Discoid” cockroach carrying the Roboroach Backpack

In fact, the longer cerci might even provide for new opportunities to record and stimulate the nervous system of the cockroach in interesting ways! Researchers have already used our SpikerBox kits to record from the cerci, and we even had a summer research fellow pursue a research project for a version of the RoboRoach which could control EVERY direction the roach moves by stimulating both the antenna and cerci.

The third thought was a sensible husbandry dilemma: would they want to even taste some of our lettuce or carrots for that buffet-style dinner? (It’s tough to get ahold of an ounce or two of dinosaur guano these days.) That one went unresolved.

Do They Resemble Our Domestic Roach?

After all, we have to acknowledge both the similarities and differences between, say, your average Periplaneta americana (American Cockroach) and these two antediluvian beauties. All roaches are fond of gloom, and all of them are apt survivors. There’s hardly such thing as picky eating among this crowd! Those are traces of their common, eons-old ancestry. It dates back 300 million years ago, to the time before the ancient supercontinent Gondwana broke up to huge chunks of land now known as Antarctica, Africa, South America, Australia, India.

But they are also mutually different. The American roach is your regular cohabitant that you may notice as it forages through your dimly lit basement. Even though it likes darkness, it will still tolerate some traces of light – that’s how much it loves your bread crumbs or even your dandruff! And luckily for our experiments that include bug leg surgery, it boasts a giant size compared to its distant relatives Mulleriblattina and Crenocticola. Its 1.6 inches of length is just enough to scare the wits out of you as it scuttles across your dinner table. It’s also known to be a genius in the evenings and a moron in the mornings. (Which makes us think that our cave-dwelling roaches must have been Einsteins!)

So next time you reach for your phone to dial pest control, think twice. Maybe it would be more ethical to let those little guys carry on with their lives. Some of them might even make it into history books one day.