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Can Neuroscience Help You Fence Better? Middle-School Scientist Wins State Science Fair Using SpikerBox

can neuroscience help you fence better
Supriya and Sujit Nair establishing a new fencing technique: Neurofencing

Every fencer will hear it countless times: warm-ups are a MUST. Do them and they’ll bump up your performance. Skip them and you may end up hurting yourself.

But not every fencer will ask why! Supriya Nair, a busy sixth-grader from Redmond, WA, decided to conduct an experiment and find out what the correlation is between exercise and performance in her favorite sport. Where other people see a self-evident truth that doesn’t need any questioning, this scientifically-minded middle-schooler saw a hypothesis that she can poke through to test it, quantify it, and prove it!

And what better way to do that than to: 

  1. sport a set of electrodes of a Neuron SpikerBox to capture an EMG signal from her right hand and right leg as she lunges,
  2. measure her muscles’ reaction time from rest to touche in controlled circumstances, with and without 15-minute warm-ups, and compare the findings.

The results came in and won her the First Place Trophy at the annual Washington State Science and Engineering Fair and a nomination for this year’s Broadcom Masters, STEM competition for the nation’s top talented middle-schoolers!

Neurofencing: How It All Began

I’d always hear it from coaches that I needed to do pre-bout exercise. But there was no quantitative data that would support it, just qualitative. And frankly, I was not very disciplined in warm-ups,” Supriya told us in a Zoom interview. That’s how she came up with the idea to eavesdrop on her muscles’ electrical activity using the SpikerBox her dad got her, and measure it to see whether it adds up to the hypothesis. And boom! Pre-bout exercise lasting only 15 minutes can improve a fencer’s performance by a whopping 15%, she discovered.

More warm-ups for her, now that she has it in writing!

Supriya’s little brother Sujit, a resourceful fourth-grader who is into astrophysics, acted as one of her test subjects and helped her set up the experiment.

But how does a middle-schooler go from defining a problem to positing a hypothesis, to designing and conducting an experiment?

Supriya, who wants to be a neurologist when she grows up, got into neuroscience last year when she suddenly found herself with lots of time on her hands during distance learning. So this 12-year-old jumped straight into university-level neuroscience MOOCs from Unis of Harvard, Chicago, Emory and Duke.

Supriya Nair Applying Neuroscience to Assess Fatigue and Optimize Performance for Young Fencers - Can Neuroscience Help You Fence Better?
Slide from Supriya’s award-winning work titled “Applying Neuroscience to Assess Fatigue and Optimize Performance for Young Fencers”

But these courses and laurels are just the beginning of Supriya’s journey through the majestic world of action potentials. She and her brother are getting a new experiment underway to complement the former and examine what the muscles, brain AND heart do when you fence.

Now that we saw what happens at a muscular scale when you fence, we want to see how busy the brain is. This time, we’ll work with flèche, which is a fencing move where you explode out and run into your opponent. But heart needs to be added into the equation too because if it doesn’t work properly, our muscles will get tired and experience peripheral fatigue. Our goal is to correlate these three – brain, heart and muscles – and see what links them together in fencing.

(We’re not making this up – that’s really how she talks!)

Fingers crossed for Supriya and Sujit! We’ll revisit them in June to see what new scientific insights they can share with us. Stay tuned!


Brains! 7th Grade Teacher Training at UChicago Brings Neuroscience to Middle Schoolers

This past summer, we worked with teachers and educators during a number of workshops to help empower them to bring DIY Neuroscience to their classrooms. One workshop, hosted by one of our colleagues at University of Chicago, brought Backyard Brains tools and training to 7th grade teachers in the Chicago area.

Taken from the National Center of Brain Mapping Site (who helped make this training possible!):

“Hands-on Training : During this fun four-day workshop, middle school teachers will learn a hands-on, inquiry based curriculum all about sensing and the brain. Teachers will work in collaborative teams and have opportunities to adapt activities to their unique classroom environments. The curriculum is aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards. Engaging University of Chicago scientists will present basic “Neuroscience 101” instruction as well as hot new topics in neuroscience research.”

To learn more about the event, you can read about it on the NCBM website here.

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Students Checked Out? Reel ’em Back In with DIY Neuroscience

Is DIY Neuroscience the best way to end the school year?*

The end of the school year… as we all say, summer is “nearest unto heaven.” ** Students and teachers agree, when we enter that last week of school, it is easy to start checking out.

Working with a friend’s class at a local Middle School, BYBer Will W. visited to help reel back in the students’ attentions and sneak a little bit more learning into the end of their school years!

Over Four, 45m blocks, he introduced students to the nervous system, to action potentials in cockroach neurons, to human-machine interfaces, to neuroprosthetics, and even mind-control! The classroom also has some of these tools for next year, empowering next year’s class of 8th graders to dive right into DIY neuroscience labs!

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