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Students learn Neural Engineering at University of Michigan’s “Xplore Engineering” camp

We visited University of Michigan’s campus during their annual “Xplore Engineering” camp. This multi-day event brings grandparents, parents, and their young scientists from all across the country to lovely summer Ann Arbor for a few days of science and engineering experiential opportunities.


Summer Neuroscience Camp Empowers NYC Teens!

Rockefeller’s Summer Neuroscience Program:

Graduate Students share their excitement for Neuroscience with teens from all over NYC

The Summer Neuroscience Program (SNP) is self-described as “a two-week course aimed at introducing talented and enthusiastic high school students to the brain,” but could more affectionately be described as summer neuroscience camp!

Students learn about the history of neuroscience, modern trends and research, participate in Journal Clubs, prepare presentations, and, in culmination, perform a DIY research project where students plan, execute, and present the results of their very own inquiry. Many of the students perform experiments using our Neuron SpikerBoxes!

Annie Handler, one of the program’s co-directors, is a friend of Backyard Brains and recently shared some details with us about her background and about the Summer Neuroscience Program. Below are her words, and within them, we have portraits of talented, enthusiastic neuroscientists, motivated high school students, and fantastic examples of DIY neuroscience done right!

Introducing Students to Neuroscience

In its first year, SNP had eight high school students in the program –– this year we had 350 applications for the program and accepted 16 students. Despite the strong interest in the program, we feel a small classroom size is most effective at cultivating self-confidence and creativity among students who have had minimal exposure to science outside of the classroom setting. This environment encourages students to ask/answer questions in a very intimate setting where they feel comfortable thinking outside the box.

Every year it inspires me that all the students we accept to the program show up on the first day and continue to show up day after day. Often, the feedback we get from students relates to how much they enjoyed getting to meet and make friends with other students who share a similar passion for science and the brain. We don’t really expect the students to retain or memorize all the facts they learned during the program –– instead, we hope (and often hear in response!) that the students walk away from the program with the following:

  1. greater confidence in their critical thinking skills,
  2. awareness that, if they want to, they too can be a scientist
  3. new, like-minded friends!

High school science courses focus mostly on the known aspects of biology, physics, and math. This structure can often leave students with the impression that there are few questions left to ask in science –– but the reality is that there are countless mysteries left to be discovered. In fact, students will often ask a question about how the brain works or how we perceive something that stumps all of the directors. These moments are central to SNP because it provides the opportunity to show students that there are still many important questions left to be asked and that it’s OK to not know all the answers – even if you are a graduate student or a professor!

Of course, when we get stumped, we start digging for answers, and if we can’t find any solid research on the question, the students are left feeling inspired that they came up with a question about the brain that no one has a good answer for yet!

About Annie

When we do introductions with the students, I like to share my own experience and trajectory into neuroscience research. I grew up with dyslexia and played piano from an early age. Consequently, I was always interested in how we perceive the world around us –– from reading a book to hearing a piece of music, it was frustrating but fascinating as I excelled in some ways, but struggled in others, relative to other kids my age. Obviously, our brain is central to this process. While the wiring of our peripheral sensory circuits is often stereotyped from person to person, ensuring high-fidelity encoding of our environment, how I perceive the world is quite different from how you perceive the world due to differences in our brain circuitry/processing and due to how our experiences have shaped our brains in different ways.

This idea of the differences in perception across animals and people got me hooked on thinking more deeply about neuroscience. I went to Amherst College and majored in Neuroscience and Music Composition. Now, in graduate school, I continue to study how our experience shapes our perception of the world by using the simple nervous system of Drosophila Melanogaster (Fruit flies!). Using Drosophila, I am studying how learning changes the function of neural circuits to drive adaptive changes in animal behavior.

I got involved with SNP in 2014 as a volunteer mentor and in 2016 I became a co-director of the program. The three-fold format of the program –– lecture, journal club, and hands-on experimental design –– appealed to me, and I felt like it was a great opportunity to help students gain an appreciation for the scientific process. On top of helping students learn to think like a scientist, it also offered me the opportunity to practice my science communication skills –– which I think are critical for all scientists to develop! It also helped me deepen my own understanding of neuroscience – we learn so much through teaching, and I have a much greater appreciation now for the elegance of the Action Potential as I’ve had to dive deep into the fundamentals as my students keep posing me thoughtful questions.

The Projects

During the second week of the program, students design and carry out their own experiments to study the nervous system of insects (crickets or cockroaches) inspired by what they learned in the first week of lectures. The lectures in the first week cover the basics of neuroscience –– what is a neuron, how does an action potential work, and the principles of the different sensory systems). Students are free to design behavioral experiments or electrophysiology experiments using the SpikerBoxes or can opt to do a combination of the two.

This year, two students studied the effect of negative associative conditioning on motor neuron activity in crickets. To do this, students paired a color with a negative stimulus of shaking the cricket. They then measured the neural activity evoked by the conditioned color in motor neurons and compared the activity to a control cricket with no conditioning experience. The students hypothesized that negative reinforcement would cause the crickets to want to escape the conditioned color and this would lead to more neural activity in the motor neurons when the crickets were presented with the conditioned color. I found this experiment incredibly creative and highly advanced for high school students. The desire to link experience with neurophysiology and behavior is a cornerstone of the most advanced research conducted at R1 institutes.

Another group of students studied how chemicals –– like neurotransmitters and toxins –– alter the firing rate and waveform of action potentials in the cricket. They used GABA, dopamine, and tetrodotoxin (I’ll note that all of these chemicals were handled by the graduate student mentors and the high school students were not allowed to touch the chemicals or inject the chemicals into the crickets). The students researched the site of action of these different chemicals and used their research to explain the effects they observed in the firing properties of the motor neurons of the cricket. Other memorable projects using SpikerBoxes have examined the effects of caffeine and salinity on firing rate.

What’s next for an SNP student?

A number of SNP alumni pursue STEM-related majors in college. One example is a former SNP student named Jackson R. who went on to major in neuroscience at SUNY Binghamton and currently works as a research technician in the same lab I work in (Vanessa Ruta’s Laboratory of Neurophysiology and Behavior) –– he is an author on this recent paper from the lab. He is in the process of deciding between going to medical school or graduate school to study neuroscience. 

Additionally, a number of SNP alumni successfully apply for more advanced STEM-related research programs including the Summer Science Research Program at Rockefeller University. This is a 7-week program where students work in a lab at Rockefeller on an original research question.  The fact that students can come into SNP with absolutely no science experience and gain enough experience to end up working in a competitive research lab at Rockefeller is another huge measure of success that we use for our program!

Required Kit: Neuron SpikerBox / Pro

The SpikerBoxes used by the SNP are circa 2012… and it’s awesome and rewarding to see them still supporting student neuroscience several years later! (They continue to work with new phones too, even with the new iPhone X!)

We’ve made some upgrades in the past 6 years though – if you want to perform your own invertebrate physiology experiments with your students, check out the kits on our Store where you can learn about the tools and the labs they support! The Neuron SpikerBox and Neuron SpikerBox Pro are here to serve your DIY Neurosci Needs!

SpikerBox Assists in Ugandan “Teacher Tools Workshop”

This post comes from our friend Dr. Thomas Tagoe, who was gracious enough to allow us to host his writing on our blog! Dr. Tagoe assisted with a recent neuroscience “Teacher Training Workshop” where dozens of teachers learned strategies for teaching neuroscience to their students. Included in the workshop was the Backyard Brains Neuron SpikerBox! We’re always excited to see teachers using our gear to bring live, hands-on neuroscience to students around the world!

This article, along with other articles written by Dr. Tagoe can be found at ( ). Dr. Tagoe writes that this website is used to “capture all our public, STEM engagement activities and to promote the works of others working to enhance the uptake of STEM within Ghana.”


“When teaching is learner-centered, the role of the teacher changes, …. They are no longer the main performer, the one with the most lines, or the one working harder than everyone else to make it all happen”. The day I read this, I knew I will never be the same teacher again. It wasn’t just the text, but the environment within which it was read and it just so happens that I had to travel over 5,000 km to undergo this transformation.

On Sunday 6th June at exactly 3.06am, I touched down in Uganda – (sorry Nigeria, I had really wanted you to be my first destination in Africa but it was not meant to be).  The airport was simple, the drive to the hotel uneventful and my sleep was dreamless. Daylight brought with it activity of the calm type; a visit to the local church with colleagues, banter with the hotel staff as we sought to identify the English name for a local bird species, the Kahloree also known as the Marabou Stork.

Image of the Marabou Stork on the banks of Lake Victoria

Evening was met with conversations on the banks of the Lake Victoria which the locals insisted was a beach. I didn’t blame them; any land locked country will mistake the vast nature of this lake for the sea. The day was pleasant in every sense of the word and I will come to appreciate these events on my first day in Uganda as the calm before the storm, after all, I was not in Uganda for pleasure.

Hello Uganda

I was in Entebbe – Uganda to join 25 other neuroscientists from across Africa for an annual teaching tools workshop. In its 10th year, this week-long workshop brought together neuroscientists from Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Botswana, Ethiopia, and Cameroon. The purpose of the workshop was to enhance the pedagogical skills of participants in the field of neuroscience and introduce tools to enhance the delivery of content.

The neuroscience teaching tools workshop was the brainchild of Professors Sharon Juliano, Janis Weeks, John Martin, Nilesh Patel and Evelyn Sernagor. Over the past 10 years, these 5 highly accomplished neuroscientists from the USA, UK and Kenya have been sharing their wealth of knowledge and teaching experience with fellow neuroscientists on a continent where the study and understanding of brain structure and function is still a young field.

Professor’s Sharon Juliano and Evelyn Sernagor with a workshop participant

Over the years, many others have come and gone in support of their efforts but these five remained a constant. This year, the team was supported by Drs. Sadiq Yusuf, Musa Mubandla, Rufus Akinyemi, David Fotsing and Professor Melissa Coleman. With funding from the International Brain Research Organisation (IBRO), the International Society of Neuroscience (ISN) and the Grass Foundation, the10th Teaching Tools Workshop soon proved to be the most successful yet.

What happens at the Teaching Tools Workshop?

The workshop began with a session on how to be an effective teacher with particular emphasis on learner-centered approaches to delivering a quality lesson. Having already been prescribed reading from the book “Learner-Centered Teaching” by Maryellen Weimer, we were in a position to discuss these teaching strategies in light of our various teaching environments and experiences. This session was soon followed by back to back content specific sessions on Introduction to the brain and neurotransmission and Principles of Electrophysiology. With that, day 1 came to an end as participants and facilitators reflected on the day’s content over cocktails.

Ongoing workshop session

The next four days saw much of the same, – minus the cocktails. We received a mixture of content specific lectures from facilitators on subjects such as The olfactory system, Higher order cortical function, Motor systems and The thalamus. Everyone present took inspiration from the teaching methods which the facilitators employed. In particular, the neuroanatomists among us who felt they had been short-changed by their own lecturers, now believed they too had been short changing their students – content was so well broken-down. Content sessions were further interspersed with pedagogy sessions on Presentation skills, Classroom management strategies and Assessment strategies. My personal favourite was the use of color coded flashcards as a low tech alternative to Clickers.

Tools for learner centered teaching

All these sessions were built around getting students to own the learning process. Prof. Janis Weeks shared how at that start of her course, students are involved in decided the weighting of course activities towards their final grade. A session dedicated to Online learning saw Dr. Sadiq Yusuf share low cost alternatives to digital tools for enhancing communication and assessment. Due to all these tools, a large portion of group discussions during the week were centered around how these concepts could be best utilised within the diverse contexts we found ourselves.  The highlight of the week was undoubtedly the Electrophysiology lab session led by Prof. Melissa Coleman which saw participants get familiar with the Spikerbox.

Professor Melissa Coleman overseeing demonstrations with the Spiker Box

For the non-electrophysiologists among us, visualizing electrical activity was a novel and enjoyable experience. For the electrophysiologists such as myself, it was a reminder of the simplicity which underlies a very powerful research tool. Either way, you can never get tired of seeing a cockroach leg dance to the beat of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”.

The teaching tools legacy

No academic activity is complete without time allocated for merry-making. It was a time to reflect and affirm commitment towards neuroscience excellence in Africa. It was also a time to create a roadmap for how best we could contribute towards the advancement of neuroscience on the continent.

Section of TTW participants at the farewell dinner

I am proud to say that I belong to the 10th cohort of the neuroscience teaching tools workshop. Barely a month after our first meeting, members of this cohort have already started implementing changes in their lecture halls. I have personally had the opportunity to use the SpikerBox in public engagement activities to raise awareness around neuroscience.

Junior High School Students been introduced to the magic of the SpikerBox during a National Science Fair in Ghana

To crown it all off, the Ghana Neuroscience Society is creating a program which incorporates content from the Teaching Tools Workshop in an effort to reach a wider audience with the excellent pedagogy strategies shared. This will be in line with the society’s mission to improve access and excellence in neuroscience. Without a doubt, it’s a good time to be a neuroscientist in Africa and I look forward to meeting the 11th cohort of the Neuroscience Teaching Tools Workshop.