Neuroscientist Greg Gage's classroom lessons on neural activation remind me of a mad scientist's lab from one of those 1950s monster movies. Picture one gigantic Amazonian roach, carrying tiny circuits attached to its back and antennae, wandering left or right in response to student-led signaling.
This "robo-roach" is just one of the experiments developed by Gage's "Backyard Brains" project, which aims to teach students as young as elementary school about neurobiology, electrical circuitry, and even medical ethics and animal husbandry. And while I find these DIY cyborgs a bit cringe-inducing, it's pretty impressive to see how much the students using the program show the fundamentals of becoming researchers themselves.
Gage, who presented his work at the Society for Neuroscience's annual conference in Washington this weekend, co-founded the project as a University of Michigan graduate student in 2009, while volunteering in the university's NeuroKids school outreach program twice a month. Gage said he enjoyed talking to students about how neurons worked, but felt frustrated because there was no way to show them the equipment used to measure and record neural signals in the lab.
"It was a lot of fun to work with the kids, but I don't think they learned that much about what the brain was, beyond the different parts," he told me. "They do talk about cellular communications [in science classes], but don't really call out anything about neurons, which is really funny, because one in five of us is going to die of a neurodegenerative disease."
Gage and fellow University of Michigan neuroscience student Tim Marzullo developed low-cost electrical "spiker-boxes" that allow students to measure neurons firing from puffs of air on the leg of a roach. They decided on the Amazonian roach, Blaberus discoidalis, in part because it was much bigger than its American cousin, and used to much warmer climates, so it could be safely anesthetized for surgery with a basic cup of ice water.
Besides, Gage said, they look cooler: "The Amazonian ones kind of look like trilobites. American ones are too fast, and they kind of creep me out."
In the three years since, Gage and Marzullo have worked with teachers and students in about 40 schools nationwide, with students in 5th grade through high school, developing experiments as well as lessons on ethics (experiments require removing a roach's leg, though it does grow back) and designing the software and electrical equipment. High school students proposed developing an iPhone app to record and share the experiments' findings, and a class at Clarkston Math, Science, and Technology Academy in Clarkston, Mich. helped design experiments exploring prosthetic limbs (see below).
Now the group is working with researchers from the online FlyBase database to help students develop behavioral experiments with fruit flies bred to be sensitive to light.
To interest more students in pursuing careers in science, Gage believes students should be learning to conduct their own research from elementary school on. "Right now the goal is not to solve Parkinson's [disease] with cockroaches; the goal is to expose kids to this," Gage said. "If we can tie together that this is what's happening inside their brains and there's so much we don't know ... Kids could do some legitimate, never-done-before experiments."
The Society for Neuroscience conference will continue through November 16.