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See Inside Scientific American Volume 306, Issue 6

A New Science Kit Lets Teens Watch Neurons as They Fire

An educational entrepreneur talks about teaching neuroscience to high school students
Greg Gage, teaching, neuroscience, Backyard Brains



Courtesy of Robert Leslie/TED

Name: Greg Gage
Position: Co-founder of Backyard Brains
Location: Ann Arbor, Mich.

When I was a graduate student in neuroscience at the University of Michigan, we would record the brains of animals and try to figure out what the brains were doing. At the same time, we were going into classrooms and teaching neuroscience to kids. Tim Marzullo—now my business partner—and I noticed that there was a big difference between what we were doing in the lab and what was being taught. They were using Ping-Pong balls and jump ropes to explain action potentials [electrical activity that occurs when neurons fire], but that’s so far removed from what is really going on in the brain.

We came up with an idea to build a recording kit for $100. The SpikerBox is a bioamplifier. What’s happening is that axons have electricity, and the electricity gets picked up by the pins on the machine. You’re listening to what the brain is doing. In our example, we use cockroaches, but we’d like to get things going on vertebrates and sea animals in the future.

Although our assembled kit costs $100, if you build it yourself, the parts are $49. A lot of high schools have an engineering or a physics class where the students build the kit and then use it in that course or hand it off to another class, say, biology or physiology.

We wanted to do this because kids who could become the best neuroscientists in the world might never become neuroscientists because neuroscience is not taught in high school. They might teach about the nervous system or the brain, but it’s very general. When you choose a career, you don’t choose things you read about in books; you choose based on the experiences you have. Seeing that cockroach leg dance to music and being able to manipulate the leg and hear the spikes that come out of it are really compelling. Those are events in children’s lives.

This article was published in print as "When Cockroach Legs Dance."

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