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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!

A 7th Grade STEM Classroom’s Neuroscience Adventure

Neuroscience Education creates Excitement, engenders Empathy, and inspires Exploration

A quick introduction: Amy Farkas is a Middle School STEM teacher from Southeastern Michigan who sought and won funding for her class’s foray into Neuroscience. She then spent the last quarter of her school year this past year introducing her students to Neuroscience and Biomedical Sciences.

These are the voyages of a 7th grade STEM classroom: a several week mission to explore strange new phenomena; to seek answers to the mysteries of the brain; to boldly create classroom experiences where no standards have gone before.

Why Neuroscience?

Amy (That’s me, to the left, performing RoboRoach Neural Surgery….): Back in January, I received an email from Will at BYB asking if we could have a conversation about Neuroscience and the Kits that BYB produces that make it accessible for everyone. What Will didn’t know at the time was that I was searching for one or two new units to add into my curriculum at the end of the year. I’m a firm believer that STEM education needs to evolve every year to keep up with our constantly changing culture and advancements in technology.

I teach every 7th grader in my district, and that equaled 242 students in 8 classes. The week I spoke with Will, I began doing my research into BYB, and by the following week, I was ready to present my ideas about learning Neuroscience to my most important clients, my students. I started by asking them how many of them knew what Neuroscience was, and very few hands went up. I then asked them to stand up if they knew anyone that had Alzheimer’s, or dementia, or epilepsy. I continued on with Autism, ADD, or ADHD. I asked about depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder. And then I had them look around… and in every class, every single one of my 242 students had stood up.

I explained that one out of every five people is affected by a neurological disorder, by since the brain is so complex and the field of Neuroscience is still relatively small, we don’t have “cures” for any of the conditions that I mentioned. I then asked them if they would like to learn more about something that affects every single one of us…not so that they would all become Neuroscientists (although that would be awesome), but instead, so we could better empathize and understand the people around us. They responded with a resounding “YES!”

The Funding Gambit: MACUL Idea Slam

Once I determined that I wanted to bring Neuroscience into my classroom, I needed to find a way to fund my BYB Kits, which would run approximately $1,500. Conveniently, I would be attending the MACUL (Michigan Association of Computer Users in Learning) Conference in March, and I knew about a contest that might help me win $1,500! I submitted my “pitch” for Neuroscience to the METS Group for Idea Slam, and I was chosen as one of the four finalists. This meant that the first night of the conference, I would be pitted against 3 other educators/teams that also wanted the funding, and we would compete by each giving a five-minute impassioned “pitch” as to why their project should be chosen. I was the first contestant on stage, and I love a microphone…so I rocked it out! It was obvious that my passion for Neuroscience education was a big contender!

The funniest memories I have of that night were that the microphone didn’t want to work for me, so they switched it out 2 different times, essentially interrupting my flow. But I said to heck with the microphone, and just used my best teacher voice!

When the winner was announced, I jumped up like I was on The Price Is Right, and ran up to grab my larger-than-life-sized check, holding it above my head, so excited to be able to buy the BYB Neuroscience Kits to bring to my students!

On Winning and Getting the Kits; Experimenting with a few students 1:1

Winning was incredibly exciting, and my students’ reaction when I showed them my big check was priceless! I was able to get out to Ann Arbor on Good Friday, meet with Will and get some awesome personalized instruction about the kits. We even built our first RoboRoach!

I had to wait until June to introduce Neuroscience and the BYB kits, so in the interim, I had a student work through them and test them with me. He was my STEM Independent Study and had a blast being the guinea pig for all the new equipment.

Through trial and error, we figured out the right way to attach electrodes, the best placement for them, and the thresholds that I should use when working with students. He was indispensable!

Diving in with the classroom… We’re in too deep to turn back now!

When I asked my student the initial questions about knowing people that were affected by neurological disorders, I had them hooked. They kept asking when the Idea Slam was, then after I won, when I was going to get the kits.

After I brought the kits in and introduced them to our new cockroaches, the anticipation built for about a month and a half before the subject was formally introduced to them.

They loved “hearing” their neurons firing when we monitored their Ulnar nerves. They were especially excited to “see” the waves and how they changed as they flexed and their neurons were activated.

Then, we learned about how we could take those signals and use them to control devices… My students were fascinated by the idea that they could control The Claw by just flexing their muscles! We discussed neuroprosthetics and how we could potentially design and 3-D print other appendages to add to the claw for more specialized activities.

They were super stoked to control each other using the Human to Human Interface, and I’ve never seen that volume of permission slips returned the very next day!

Throughout our use of the Backyard Brains neuroscience kits, the one thing that was foremost in my students’ minds was being able to control the RoboRoach.

We started by recording from the neurons in a cockroach to learn about the similarities in our nervous systems.

Then we moved onto the RoboRoach! The process of creating the RoboRoach was very frustrating for us, it involves a surgery which takes some practice, and we almost ran out of roaches to turn into cyborgs. We were finally able to get our RoboRoach functional the last day of experimentation, and I videoed the working cyborg so all the classes would be able to see it, just in case things didn’t work later! But the video wasn’t as fascinating to them as actually having the roaches in the room was! You’ve got to see it in person to really believe it.

End of Year reflections – Neuroscience is the 7th graders top pick!

My kiddos had an amazing experience learning about Neuroscience this year! I would run into parents all over town and all they’d talk about was how thrilled their students were to be working on something so exciting! Their attention span when we had the kits out was longer than I ever anticipated because they were fully engaged in the learning process. I was impressed with their deep level questions about the nervous system, and we spoke daily about why we were including Neuroscience in our curriculum.

Every day, students would come in and share stories with their class about how their lives were different and how they were seeing the world differently because of what they were learning. One student, in particular, was deeply moved: He has epilepsy and said he never told other kids because they looked at him like he was different. He shared that now that everyone in 7th grade understood more about neurological disorders, he was more open to telling people and they had great questions for him! At the end of the year, he gave me a big hug and thanked me for helping him feel “normal” again. MANY tears were shed.

Another favorite memory was the competitiveness of my students when seeing who could go to the highest setting on the TENS unit when using the Human to Human Interface. All of them knew that I would not cause anyone undue pain, and it was their call as to which setting they wanted to discontinue current on. But a lot of my kiddos are athletes, and they hypothesized that the more developed your muscles, the less discomfort you feel with the Spiker Box and TENS unit controlling your nerves. So, the phrase “Take me to an eight” was born. That meant that they had moved up incrementally through the levels of current that the TENS unit produced, and wanted to go to the highest setting. The shouts of “Take me to an eight” became so common that I joked with them that at their high school graduation in 5 years, I’d be in the front row shouting “Take them to an eight!”

The last day of school, I save the whole class period for reflection: what we’ve learned, what they felt invested in, what they enjoyed most and what they didn’t learn, but would still like to. The overwhelming student favorite and winner, once again unanimous, was Neuroscience and our BYB Kits! It was the perfect way to end their year.

Summer Science Camp gets Neuro Cool

For the first time this summer, I taught summer camp in Saline, MI through their Community Education Programming. Neuroscience Camp was five days, for three hours each day. I spent the first few days showing students how their nervous systems worked and teaching in-depth lessons embedded with hands-on crafts about neurons. The final two days I brought in my BYB Kits and we introduced hands-on neuroscience, which was a big hit!

To the Future…

Unfortunately, I did not receive the MACUL grant that I applied for that would have brought in a VR gaming computer for my students to experience the nervous system and brain in a fully immersive setting. However, Will brought up an awesome pilot project for me to try with my students, and I’m excited to get the ball rolling.

This year, I am moving up to 8th grade, so I will have the same students as last year. I’ve written a whole new curriculum for this grade level and was excited to include more Neuroscience! We will be embarking on an engineering design project to conceptualize, research, design, build and test our own Neuroprosthetics! BYB has been the best addition to my STEM lab, and my students’ lives are better for having learned all they did about Neuroscience! Who knows? We may have inspired some of them to go to medical school!

Enhance Your PLTW Class with Hands-on Neuroscience

Engage your students with even more Real-World Science

PLTW is a powerhouse in the STEM Ed movement. Thanks to them, many schools are offering courses in Engineering, Computer Science, and, most exciting to us at BYB, Biomedical Sciences. Thanks to these courses, students have the opportunity to learn about all sorts of incredible career and research fields (Including Biomedical Engineering and Neuroscience!), and the courses are led by inquiry and hands-on activities.

We work with many PLTW teachers who have incorporated Backyard Brains tools and experiments to help enrich their courses and to provide exciting, hands-on labs and materials for some of the trickier to cover concepts. Below I have just a few examples of how to incorporate new and novel labs and demonstrations into your PLTW course to empower and inspire your students.

If you teach a PLTW course, this will be a great resource for you as you seek ways to further engage your students and give them real-world, hands-on experiences. If you don’t teach a PLTW course, well, as they say, steal everything that isn’t nailed down or protected by licensing (none of our materials are!) and use it to improve your own classes!

Medical Interventions

Unit 3: How to Conquer Cancer

Lesson 3.3: Treating Cancer

In brief, here are a few of the performance objectives for this lesson

  • Design and create a simple model of an arm that is able to pick up an empty Styrofoam cup.
  • Complete a laboratory investigation using data acquisition software and probes to explore biofeedback therapy.
  • Design an experiment to test the effect of relaxation techniques on their heart rate, respiration rate, and skin temperature.
  • Design and present a comprehensive rehabilitation plan for an assigned patient.

Prosthetics and assistive technologies are really exciting examples of applied sciences. It shows students how they can combine an interest in the life sciences with computer science and engineering. We’ve had many PLTW use Backyard Brains’ The Claw during this lesson to give students a hands-on experiment with a real neuroprosthetic. By recording from the muscles in their arms (or anywhere in their body), students can dynamically control the claw.

Then, you can have students design their own neuroprosthetic which they can actually control with their nervous system…

Biofeedback is an umbrella which includes neuroprosthetics, but within these objectives, it is being investigated as a therapeutic system. Learning to control or affect certain functions of your body can be hard. Learning to REGAIN control following injury or illness can be even more challenging. The goal of Biofeedback systems is that they provide an external indicator of how the subject is progressing. This includes everything from regaining control of movement in your body, to simply staying calm, managing your heart rate, or meditating with an EEG device!

Check out these Backyard Brains experiments which use the Heart and Brain SpikerBox to explore some of these signals, then your student can design a biofeedback experiment observing EEG, EKG, or even EOG (Eye Potentials).

Experiment: Record and Decode your Heart Rate

Experiment: Observe your Sympathetic Nervous System in Action

Experiment: Record Alpha Waves from your Brain

Experiment: Eye Potentials? What are those?

Required Kits: The Claw & Heart and Brain SpikerBox

Human Body Systems

Unit 2: Communication

Lesson 2: Electrical Communication

Sounds like electrophysiology to me! In brief, here are a few of the performance objectives for this lesson

  • Use an interactive website to manipulate ions in a membrane and generate an action potential in a neuron.
  • Complete a laboratory investigation using data acquisition software and probes to explore reflexes in the human body.
  • Design an experiment to test factors that could impact reaction time.

A question with an obvious answer: would you rather your students learn about neurons by making a pipe-cleaner 3D model and clicking through a web-app? Or do you want them to record living neurons from a model organism, turning the introduction of neuroscience into a hands-on, quantitative lab? Much like the NGSS MS-LS1-8, this is an opportunity to introduce students of any age to Neuroscience by performing one of the most fundamental experiments in neuroscience: recording directly from a neuron!

Using the Neuron SpikerBox, students can first observe live Action Potentials, then learn about how these signals are interpreted – a process called Rate Coding.

Experiment: Record from a Living Neuron

Experiment: Learn how Action Potentials Encode Information

Required Kit: Neuron SpikerBox

But what about Humans? We believe that using cockroaches and other model organisms to introduce neurons and Action Potentials is an incredibly important and powerful learning experience. But we’re not about to ignore the human element…

When we show students the Human-Human-Interface (seen in the above TED talk), it never fails to amaze and surprise them. It is also an incredibly effective way to illustrate the role that electrical systems play in sending and receiving signals throughout the human body. One PLTW teacher we work with said she usually tries to invite the principal in to be the subject of the experiment, making it especially fun for the students when they get to take control!

Experiment: Take Someone’s Free Will

Required Kit: Human-Human-Interface


In this lesson, there is also an emphasis on understanding reflexes and reaction time – rightfully so! Mental Chronometry is the foundation of modern neuroscience. Before we studied Neurons, we studied reaction times to externally investigate the nervous system. Could you react faster to a sound, a light, or a touch? Differences in these reaction times and, consequently, differences in reflexes, informed an early understanding of neural circuitry, and you too can perform these experiments!

Check out these experiments below which students can get started with before hacking them to create their own projects!

Experiment: How Fast Can Your Body React?

Experiment: The Patellar Reflex and Reaction

Required Kits: Muscle SpikerBox & Reaction Timer

Unit 4: Movement

Lesson 2: Muscles & Lesson 4: Exercise Physiology

Here are a few of the performance objectives for these lessons

  • Investigate Muscular Anatomy and learn about the link between Muscles, Neurons, and your Brain
  • Learn how muscles are composed of units called sarcomeres, which contract and shorten when exposed to electrical stimuli.
  • Complete a laboratory investigation using data acquisition software and probes to explore muscle fatigue.
  • Design an experiment to test the effect of feedback, coaching or competition on muscle fatigue.

These lessons are a great way to bridge the gaps between many different interests. Athletes in your class are going to be excited to learn about exercise physiology, your bio students are going to love to learn about motor-units and muscular anatomy, and all the students love a little bit of competition and hands-on experiments…


Beginning with the mechanisms which excite your muscles and which we can record data from, students learn about and record EMG signals from their own muscles using the Muscle SpikerBox Pro. This allows your students to hear, see, and record the electrical activity of their muscles, ultimately facilitating a number of exciting (and competitive) labs.

But first, your students can explore muscular anatomy and learn about Agonist and Antagonist muscle pairs, and then take a deeper dive to record from Motor Units.

Experiment: Agonist and Antagonist Muscle Groups

Experiment: Hunting for Motor Units

Exercise Physiology

Muscle Fatigue is the next phenomena to investigate, and here’s where things can get competitive (or, if you prefer, comparative!)Students can design their own muscle fatigue experiment or comparative inquiry. By quantifying the strength of the beginning and end of an EMG signal, students can create a Rate of Fatigue over time which they can then compare between each other, or themselves as they continue to exercise over several trials in a day, or over several months. Does a competitive format inspire a student to hold out for longer (we call this hands-free arm wrestling) or will muscles fatigue at a similar rate regardless? That’s for your students to investigate!

Experiment: Modeling Rates of Fatigue

Want to see an example from a real HS Senior student? Check out her research poster titled:

Analyzing Muscle Fatigue Patterns Between Softball Players and Pianists.

Required Kit: Muscle SpikerBox Pro

What will you and your students discover?

As you can see above, there are a lot of ways you can take your PLTW lessons to the next level by engaging your students with hands-on electrophysiology. All of these tools are designed to be accessible and easy to use and, as you can see above, they are very affordable.

The above devices pair with free data-acquisition software called SpikeRecorder, which you can download on any smart device, tablet, Chromebook, or computer. For more information, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our General Email.

Your support helps us to improve our open-source devices, to perform research, and to write new experiments!

Together, we are working to inspire a new generation of neuroscientists, biomedical engineers, Doctors, and other STEM professionals. And for those students who do not pursue a STEM field, we are teaching them critical thinking skills, problem-solving strategies, and the knowledge they need to know to be scientifically literate citizens.