On Saturday April 29, WiSE hosted a Brain Day event for Girl Scouts, an opportunity to spend a morning learning about neuroscience through interactive experiments led by CSHL faculty members Steve Shea and Jessica Tollkhun. The 24 girls who attended, ranging in age from 11 to 14, had diverse reasons for coming; while some already expressed a strong interest in science (one told us she wants to be a neuroscientist or an engineer), others were motivated by a love of making things (including messes). Many of the girls were currently taking Earth Science in school, so Brain Day was an exciting way to fit a biology lesson into their studies.
After an introductory neuroscience lesson in which Steve Shea explained how neurons communicate, the girls split into groups to see this signaling in action using Backyards Brains kits (affordable, Arduino-controlled electrophysiology kits). At one of the stations, after a brief primer on cockroach leg anatomy, the girls measured changes in the frequency of neuronal spikes in cockroach legs in response to various stimuli – this taught them about how neurons use rate coding to transmit information. At another station, they used electric signals from music to cause cockroach legs to dance.
While the girls definitely enjoyed the insect lab, the human experiments were the highlights of the day for many. At one station, the girls converted electromyography (EMG) signals coming from their own muscles into sound and lights. They then used EMG signals to control a robotic claw and Jessica Tollkhun explained how similar technology is being used to allow amputees and people with paralysis to control prosthetic limbs. At another station, they transmitted electrical information from the muscles of one girl to the nerve of another, allowing them to control that girl’s finger movements.
In between experiments, the girls got the chance to talk with and ask questions of WiSE group. Conversations overheard included research technician Alex Ambrico discussing career pathways with Katrina, who’s interested in becoming a nurse, and Steve Shea discussing neuroanatomy with Bronwen, whose experiences with friends battling brain cancer have motivated her to become a neurologist.
With twelve troops from Nassau County and one from Queens represented, the event was not only an opportunity to learn, but also a chance to make new friends. And smiles could be found all around – especially at the station where girls were using their facial movements to control machines!