Who says that hands-on approach doesn’t work in virtual space? We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: science is doable, DIY-able, interactive, and it works online just as efficiently as it does in person!
Back in August 2020, the IBRO-LARC/PEDECIBA* “DIY Neuroscience and AI for all” workshop showed that the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t have to stand in the way of hands-on neuroscience. BYB founders, Drs. Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo, who also took part in the project, tell us that student attendants from Uruguay, Argentina, Panama, Colombia, Chile, Peru were super engaged and motivated. “I had concerns about a virtual conference at first, but all fears were put to rest once seeing it play out. The discussion, questions and feedback during my lecture was better than in-person,” says Greg.
In his lecture aptly titled “Neuroscience tools for the 99%”, he recounted the humble, bohemian beginnings of Backyard Brains over a decade ago, when he and Tim invented a $100 spike in their dorm room. Building a contraption from scratch and pitching the idea to the scientific community and the public are two different things, so they came up with a satirical narrative about a zombie apocalypse to attract people to their booth at the Society for Neuroscience conference. The rest is history!
In one of his two presentations (which, alas, aren’t available in English), Tim discussed open-source philosophy and ways to make your own lab at home. Hablas Español, anyone? In case you do, here is the video. (If you take notes in English, do send them over!)
María Castelló (Clemente Estable Biological Research Institute), who organized and coordinated the event, confirms that the program was successful and productive, despite the lack of in-person dimension. “Three of the students groups not only prepared their reports but also send manuscripts for publication in an Uruguayan journal for teachers from the Biology Department of the National Administration of Public Education,” Maria told us.
*IBRO (International Brain Research Organization) is an international federation of scientific organizations. It was founded back in 1961 with the mission to promote neuroscience accross the world and foster collaboration between individual researchers as well as scientific communities. IBRO’s LARC (Latin America Regional Committee) is one of their six regional branches spreading accross the continents. PEDECIBA (Basic Sciences Development Program) is Uruguay’s national interdisciplinary program that fosters scientific research as part of the United Nations Development Progoramme (UNDP).
Start the presses! Backyard Brains has a new publication! Our Neurorobot paper is titled “Neurorobotics Workshop for High School Students Promotes Competence and Confidence in Computational Neuroscience.” You can read the article in its entirety on the Frontiers in Neurorobotics website–because we believe neuroscience knowledge is for everyone, and no one should have to pay for access! The paper details our recent work developing the methodologies essential for making neurorobotics accessible in high school classrooms.
We began the Neurorobot project in 2018, when notable neuroscientist Christopher Harris joined the team with his gaggle of “brain-based rugrats” in tow. The Neurorobot aimed to bring neurorobotics more enticing to high school learners, and we quickly started to brainstorm (pun intended!) how we would implement such experiments in schools.
The Neurorobot Workshops
Chris ran the workshop at 2 high schools, sharing his 1-week Neurorobot workshop with nearly 300 students total. The students piloted the Neurorobot App developed for controlling the bots, and were able to provide feedback on the successes and shortcomings of the workshops.
The workshops were targeted to give students a base of knowledge and increase their confidence on the scientific topics studied. Both prior to and after the week-long sessions, students were presented a quiz, and their responses were analyzed for retention and comfort level. We found a significant improvement on all content questions, showcasing the effectiveness of our learning tools.
The Neurorobot Fellowship Project
If you recall, one of our fellows spent his summer working on the Neurorobot project. Ilya worked on coding the machine learning and computer vision aspects of the bot. Throughout the summer, he made progress posts, which can be found below:
There is nothing like hands-on application to showcase room for improvement, and our Neurorobotics Workshop definitely did so! We ran into some unexpected issues and tried to adapt on the fly, and we are so excited to keep this momentum going. Based on our successes, we hope to pilot more Neurorobotics programs in the future! Is your school interested? If you would like more information on how to get involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org!
So we set a date… Jan 31st, shot out some emails, and hoped we wouldn’t be eating bagels and cream cheese alone in the office on the morning of the workshop! Far from alone, we had 10 passionate educators join us, from classroom teachers to curriculum designers and even graduate students involved in neuroscience outreach! Some came from local, Ann Arbor schools, and some drove much further, or even flew(!) to attend the event!
The day was booked well ahead of time. Our goal was to cover both intro and intermediate materials to enable these educators to improve how they teach both invertebrate and human physiology in their science outreach and in their STEM, Biology, and Neuroscience classes
Starting with some Invertebrate Physiology, the educators covered strategies for teaching science with Model Organisms, performed live neuron recordings from the cockroach leg prep, and practiced both introductory and advanced analytics approaches to better understand how the nervous system works and how we, as scientists, can begin quantifying electrical phenomena from within the nervous system.
Then we dove into some human physiology experiments, covering muscle activity, reflexes, and reaction times! These labs are quick and quantifiable, and the educators experience first-hand how they can be used to unpack a lot of big ideas in a short amount of time! For example, reactions and reflexes are different… but why? And a much broader question, how does “information” get from a to b? What is the speed(s) of information?
And of course, the day wouldn’t be complete without some hands-on time with the Human-Human Interface! This inspired shock, laughter, and intrigue from all the attendees. It really is an experience that needs to be felt to be believed.
Everyone agreed – it was a productive day! The educators responded that the material we covered would not only help them teach NEUROSCIENCE better, but it gave them strategies to teach SCIENCE better!
Our next opportunity for a shorter-form introductory training session is a February Webinar. Click this link or the image below to register, and keep an eye out on our blog for future opportunities!