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Help us Study the Neuroscience of Sport

Help us win a Grant to Empower a New Generation of Sports Scientists!

Through our adventures at Backyard Brains over the years, we have come to love electromyography, muscle coordination, and the body in movement. We have already begun some classes where we teach muscle physiology through sport! We recently applied for a grant to devote more resources to this new area for us. We made a quick and dirty video under deadline at a local school, and to move to the next phase of the competition, we need eyeballs and likes. Help us out with your screens and your thumbs if you want to!

This is to further develop our fledgling work into making quantitative sports-science an accessible field of research for K12 students!

We’ve tried three sports so far, all favorites of Backyard Brains: baseball, basketball, and soccer. For baseball, we attached electrodes to the triceps while students threw the ball at greater and greater distances. However, the act of throwing a baseball is so violent and fast that the cables would always fly off, making an unstable interface, to put it mildly.

We next tried basketball, with muscles again on the triceps, but our students were pretty young, around 11-13, and they had a hard time launching the basketball with enough force (and good form) to actually reach the basket. Even on adults like ourselves, we did not notice an obvious difference between 2 point and 3 point throws.

Our last attempt was with soccer. We placed electrodes on the quadriceps, and we had markings on the outside gym floor with masking tape of 5 ft, 10 ft, 15 ft, 20 ft, 25 ft, etc.

With this experiment, it was very obvious that the EMG amplitude of the quadriceps contraction increased with the greater distance that the students had to kick the soccer ball, teaching about motor unit recruitment and electrophysiology in a very entertaining way. Learn more about the experiment and the results here!

We have on experiment up currently which teaches students how to study and model Rates of Muscle Fatigue – this is a great intro lab as it can be modified and applied to many sports labs!

There are numerous examples of sports scientists using EMG activity to study the efficiency of different movements, the relationships between strength and endurance, and the difference between skilled and unskilled athletes! We want students who are passionate about their sport to contribute to this body of knowledge, and we want to provide affordable and accessible tools, along with free introductory resources so they can get started running (literally!) Weightlifting, rock climbing, football, futbol, gymnastics, tennis, baseball, shuffleboard… the possibilities are limitless!

This is just the beginning, and we will continue looking for ways to incorporate sport into our physiology experiments, as it makes teaching at the middle and high school very engaging. We would all rather be outside and move our bodies than sit at a desk, anyway.

We’d encourage you to watch the youtube video we linked above, and if you love this project, please like the video! It will help us to win this funding and help bring the experiments to life.

From Middle School to University, Technology that Helps is Hot!

“A new generation of students has access to 3D printers and other DIY technology…”

I was speaking recently to one of our colleagues at Temple University about a project several of his students were working on, and he said something that really struck me, “these students are the first generation to have grown up with 3D printers in their schools, some even in their basements. They know how to use these and other maker tools, and it’s changing education,”

He’s right – every year now, we see more and more schools with Maker Spaces, 3D printers, DIY Electronics, and time set aside for creative, scientific projects. These students are already outpacing the old standards and this phenomenon certainly heralds a bright future!

The project we were discussing was a multi-channel neuroprosthetic that his students were developing with 3D modeling software, a 3D printer, and Backyard Brains tools! Check it out below:

A new trend? Students develop Neuroprosthetics, start Student Organization

This past summer, rising sophomore Morgan R., of Temple Universitpursued a summer project: with the help of one of her professors, she began the process of developing an affordable, 3D printed Neuroprosthetic powered by the Backyard Brains SpikerShield. What started as a fun summer project grew when she started bringing her friends and classmates on board. Thanks to their interdisciplinary connections, they realized they had the opportunity to make something out of the project and started a Neuroprosthetics Organization at the university, with the aim to develop and donate affordable prosthetics to those of different ability who could benefit from assistive technology.

Their work was made possible thanks to the Creative Arts, Research, and Scholarship (CARAS) program, a funding opportunity at Temple for undergraduates which supports undergraduate creative and scholarly projects.

We reached out directly to Morgan, and her classmate Gabby to learn more about the project, and after some Q&A they provided us with a lot of great details about their project! Below are their words and photos as they describe the process involved, from idea, to prototyping, to student org!

Morgan and Gabby: Our team launched this project by examining the question: How can we make prosthetics more accessible to the general public? After doing research on the industry and current methods, we concluded that they were so expensive because many of the companies who make them are mostly research and prototype oriented and not thinking about accessibility to end users who could use them today.

For our design, we concluded that a myoelectric (or EMG) prosthetic hand could be developed to be both affordable and versatile. We constructed the hand through an engineering program called AutoCAD. This software allows the user to create three-dimensional models that can be printed using a 3D Printer. We drafted two separate original designs for the hand and deliberated the pros and cons of both versions.

We decided upon our preferred design, then we printed and assembled our first hand.

In the end, we decided to print the fingers in three separate pieces, the palm in two separate pieces, and a forearm structure. There were channels running through the palm into the fingers to allow strings of fishing line to run up the forearm structure and loop through at the tips of the finger digits. Each finger needed three strings, so there were about 15 strings total, so after the loop at the top there were about thirty strings running through the tunnel opening.

We came up with a strategy to organize the assortment of strings running through the bottom by two different color coding systems (one upon which finger it was and the other was whether the string received constant tension or an occasional burst. From there, we attached the strings from the opening of the tunnel to servos installed in the forearm attachment. The servos were then connected to an Arduino breadboard and the muscle backyard brains SpikerShield pro. We then used their code to experiment with the mechanism.


We are excited to continue moving forward with this project this project and to continue research in this field. During the next phase of the project, we would like to use a more precise 3D printer, to reduce the amount of variation from the 3D model to the print. Furthermore, we would like to find a better material to use instead of fishing line, as the degree of motion is not where we would like it to be. The fishing line could only handle so much tension, furthermore, the natural tendons found in the body have more elasticity than the fishing wire. We need to be able to apply a similar degree of tension to the line to create natural movements without the assistance of an external wire.  

We also face issues on the software side. It is challenging to identify individual finger movements through EMG signals. We came up with a few short-term solutions for this: for example, with the single channel SpikerShield, we set finger servomotor activation at different thresholds, so depending on how strong the user’s flex was would change what fingers were activated. The 6-channel SpikerShield Pro has a lot of opportunities to offer individual finger control, but it is challenging to differentiate so many different signals from the forearm.

We are proud of what we’ve accomplished in such a short amount of time and see this as a strong foundation for our future work. We don’t doubt that we will be able to overcome these obstacles. We hope to have the prosthetic working well enough in the next year to give it to a living patient.

From an academic perspective, this project allowed us to put the skills that we gained through our engineering classes to practical use. Furthermore, it allowed us to experience working on a team with individuals who were not all pursuing the same field of study. Teamwork and reliability were key to the success of the project, it took the knowledge and skill of each discipline of the team to succeed.


This team’s work is a great example of a growing trend: there is a new generation of students who have grown up with access to 3D printers, Arduinos, and other DIY tools. They are also one of the first student groups to begin with the single channel Muscle SpikerShield Bundle and then upgrade their design to allow for multi-channel control by implementing the Muscle SpikerShield Pro!

As you can see above, the students’ development involves a lot of trial and error as they work on functionally mimicking the movement of their prosthetics’ fingers. They are making great progress, and we are excited to share updates from them as their work continues over the school year!

Not just University Students…

It’s not just university students developing Neuroprosthetics and assistive neuro technologies! Here are a few examples of MS and HS students who have developed their own devices using Backyard Brains kits.

This prosthetic grabber was made with a simple servo motor and is strong enough to grip and lift a can of sparkling mineral water! Now nothing will stop anyone from enjoying their bubbles.

This is a great example of a functional prosthetic model, or Biomimicry – by combining our kits with Lego Mindstorms, the students created a doll that would mimic another students kick by recording from their leg.

This student combined his VEX robotics kit with a Muscle SpikerShield to create his NeuroClaw!

Planning an 8th Grade DIY Neuroprosthetics Lab

Ms. Farkas has big plans for her 8th graders this year: continuing their experience with DIY neuroscience from last year, she is branching into the world of prosthetics! Following a successful Donors Choose, she is now planning a unit where groups of students will all be responsible to design and create devices which will be controlled by their nervous systems!

She describes it best:

My Project

This year, we want to continue my students’ Neuroscience journey! With the help of the Backyard Brains Muscle SpikerShield Kits, we plan to conceptualize, research, design, build and control our own Neuroprosthetics. Through collaboration with the team at Backyard Brains, we are piloting a project aimed at middle school students!

We’re excited to update you on the results of her class projects!

Required Kit:
Muscle SpikerShield / Pro

Develop your own Neuroprosthetics using the Arduino based Muscle SpikerShield or Muscle SpikerShield Pro!

Backyard Brains High School Student Personal Projects

Backyard Brains is live from inside the classroom of Colegio Alberto Blest Gana in Santiago to present you 5 group projects brought to life by creative and passionate students. and the methodology we used to choose the projects. This high school has been like a second lab for Backyard Brains, where the students beta test our hardware prototypes and invent new classroom exercises. This year was the first year where the classroom made independent group projects, with a class size of about 15 students, ranging from 7th grade to high school seniors.  

It can be a challenge to involve students in independent projects when it is their first time,  so it is important to let the students conceive their own project ideas from the beginning. The ideas need to come from inspiration, not mandated from above. That’s why, to help out in the creative process, we devised an interview that would work like a conversation, where the student can start to imagine what they would like to build, or what problem they would like to solve. You can use this pdf as a guide

To guide some shy students that weren’t sure what they wanted to build, we suggested projects that the students could modify so that they could begin to feel that the idea we gave them is also their own.  We then place the people that had similar ideas and interests into the same group. As a suggestion, if you are working with students with very different ages, it is important to mix it up a little in this area: always have a mix of older students with younger students.

The interview resulted in 5 projects:

  1. The Electrocardiogram of the Clam. 

This project was chosen by students that had an interest in animal physiological systems. Most of the students didn’t know before this experiment that a clam has a heart, because when you open it, the clam’s organs just look like a blob. It isn’t easy to notice distinct anatomical parts that look so different from the organs of vertebrates. After finding the heart, a challenge for students (and even for us teachers), we needed to make sure the heart was still moving and contracting. Unlike a vertebrate heart, the beat is not like a regular clock, it can stop a long time and then restart again.

When we saw a heart beat, we placed one red signal electrode in the atrium and the other in the ventricle. The third electrode (ground-black) was placed farther away the clam. These three electrodes were connected to the Backyard Brains Heart and Brain SpikerBox to make the recordings.

And glory of glories, we had success!

However, we don’t know if what the students recorded is in fact an artifact arising from relative movement of the recording electrodes, giving rise to a baseline shift that mimics in some ways the P and QRS features of a typical ECG. Our next step is to manually deform the heart to see if similar features arise. If not, then perhaps we observed a real biologically-generated clam electrocardiogram. You can download our recording here. 

  1. Muscle-Keyboard-Interface.

In this project, chosen by one gamer and talented student, he used the electricity generated by voluntary muscle contraction to take over the keyboard of a computer.

 The appeal of this project is that muscle interfaces work like a charm, a microcontroller is easy to program, and it’s all very low cost. To accomplish this, we decided to control a very easy and accessible video game with the electrical impulses of the muscles, using our Muscle SpikerShield combined with the Arduino Leonardo. The advantage of an Arduino Leonardo is a computer can recognize the Leonardo as a keyboard input. The video game he chose was Google Chrome’s offline dinosaur video game: you can play it fine with only one key on the keyboard (the space bar makes the dinosaur jump…though pressing the down arrow key also makes the dinosaur duck). It’s fun, and you don’t need internet or any specialized gamer hardware to run it. You can download the code here.

  1. Cockroach Labyrinth.

The idea of this project was to build a labyrinth to learn about cockroach behavior and food preferences. Could they learn the route to reach a preferred food source faster over time, say, a banana slice instead of a potato slice?

Unfortunately, this project was done in the open air during winter, with a temperature of 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature at which cockroaches are not that hungry and not highly active, so using food as an incentive didn’t work. Also, another problem  was that the cockroaches were able to climb the walls of the labyrinth. Nevertheless, the students got over these obstacles and had success with one experiment:  they placed a lid on half of the labyrinth to make that section dark, and left the other half uncovered, so light could get in. They released the cockroaches, and after one minute, all of the three cockroaches were in the dark side, just like Anakin Skywalker.  A small sample size, but convincing evidence of what was suspected all along: cockroaches prefer dark spaces.

  1. The Polygraph Lie Detector.

This project was from a group of students interested in the physiology of lying. At Backyard Brains we love to extract and read physiological signals, and as the traditional polygraph measures skin conductance, respiration, blood pressure, and heart rate, building a DIY polygraph is right in our wheelhouse. To keep it simple in the beginning, together with the students we decided to focus on skin conductance alone, something we have been asked to study before many times.

        When someone lies, there is the hypothesis that the persons subtly increases sweating. Since sweat is salty water, and salty water is much more conductive than dry skin, we should be able to measure a decrease in skin resistance across the palms when a person is lying.

The first experiment this group did was very simple. They checked the skin resistance using a multimeter and patch electrodes across our inner palms before and after running on the treadmill The results were the following:

Before running 5 kilometers

97  Kiloohms 

After running 5 kilometers (24 minutes)

12 Kiloohms

The results are crystal clear, a body covered in sweat is much less resistant to electrical current than dry skin.

The next step was to find a way to graph skin resistance in real time, and test it using lies instead of jogging. The students made a simple circuit in Arduino where the grey cables go from 5 V input to analog 0 in arduino, buuuutttt, the cable is cut and the person must grab each end of the cut cable with each hand. They then used the sample code “graph” which graphs the voltage value of the analog input, which, of course, will change depending on the resistance of the skin across the student’s hands.

When they tested using lies, there was no significant change in the value of the skin resistance, as the effect is simply too subtle, if it even exists at all, to measure using our equipment. Although the final test wasn’t successful, at least the students tore down the myth that galvanic skin response can detect lies by itself. That’s why complete polygraph machines also measures respiration, blood pressure and heart rate, and the combination of all these elements supposedly makes the polygraph a more reliable tool for detecting lies. If we continue this project in the future, we will look into integrating these other physiological signals in addition to skin conductance.

  1. Muscle Electrophysiology in soccer.

 This group of students was interested in how electromyography changes when making different strength kicks in soccer: kicks made for small distances, like close passes, and kicks made for big distances, like aiming for the goal or to a player that’s far away. To do this, the group placed two signal electrodes in the abductor muscle of the quadriceps, and the ground on the knee. The students then placed masking tape in the floor, marking the distance in meters, and the subject kicked the soccer ball to a friend waiting at the various meter marks.


The different distances they used were 5 meters (16.4 feet), 3 meters (32.8 feet), 15 meters (49.2 feet), 20 meters (65.5 feet), 25 meters (82 feet), 30 meters (98.5 feet), and 35 meters (114.8 feet). Below is a sample of the data they recollected:

As you can see quite nicely, the amplitude of the EMG of the quadriceps increases as the soccer ball kicks become more forceful. This was our hypothesis, that as you recruit more and more muscle fibers during a movement, the EMG signal amplitude will increase due to the higher number of action potentials generated and the superposition that results.

This experiment on the physiology of sports was very fun for the students. They also tried baseball pitches, but the rapid “snap-back” movement of the arm would always cause the cables attached to the triceps to come flying off. With basketball, they did not notice a dramatic difference between two point and three point shots. So, as the students were happy to report, for now, soccer is the best for studying the physiology of sports using our equipment! We will keep trying with baseball for all the Detroit Tigers fans out there.


These final projects were worked on once a week, for 1.5 hours, for 2.5 months, and on October 30th, the students presented their results to the community to much success. The sports physiology and the clam EKG experiment will be the first to be transformed into formal Backyard Brains experiments on our webpage, so stay tuned! If you are interested to having the students in your school working on personal group projects, feel free to contact us, and we investigate the world together!