Backyard Brains in the Classroom

This spring, BE 310, Bioengineering Lab II, took on a project to combine robotics and biology, using WIC’s iPads and cockroaches. Using a hardware set and an app from Backyard Brains, students in the class taught by David Meaney and Susan Margulies used their own muscles and brains to drive the muscles in cockroach legs.

When Sevile Mannickarottu first approached us with his idea, we were surprised to learn about this use for iPads. Fortunately, it was easy to install the free app on 12 of our iPads.

Backyard brains is an app aimed at high school students that allows basic neuroscience experiments. This project took its concepts a step further. Using EMG sensors to gather the electrical impulses from their own muscles, students took that output, fed it into a PC and used it to translate the readings into impulses that drove the cockroach legs. The iPad cameras were used to video-record the legs in motion, allowing students to accurately monitor how legs move naturally, instead of haphazardly. After recording and analyzing the movements, they were then able to program the PC to allow it to move the cockroach legs naturally using just their own muscle impulses.

This was certainly a creative use of our iPads! The app can be run on smartphones, but the size of the iPads made them ideal for video recording and analysis as well as running the app. Our iPads are available for classroom lending, and have been used in a variety of ways, including connecting students with rare books and teaching Cantonese. We hadn’t explored Backyard Brains before this project. We welcome new app requests inspired by course needs. Often we can help with identifying and installing apps as well. I’m sure there are plenty more surprising ways to integrate iPads into the classroom out there!

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