[FUN_Mail] Gauge of interest in Electronic Neuron kits for teaching

Joseph Burdo via FUN_Mail fun_mail at lists.funfaculty.org
Tue Feb 10 22:37:40 EST 2015

Hi all,

An engineering colleague and I are in the process of constructing
“electronic neuron” kits that allow users to connect neuron simulators
(basically very small (~1 inch square), inexpensive microcontrollers
programmed with simplified neuron-like behavior) together through
excitatory or inhibitory “synapses”, sense environmental variables and
produce some relevant output. We’re casting a wide net with this project,
and want to make these accessible to and valuable for young teens through
undergrads, and indeed any person interested in exploring engineering,
electronics, computer science, industrial design, neuroscience and
physiology. Maybe we’ll call them STEM (or STEAM) cells. Anyway, the detail
level can be modified to make it relevant and engaging for the particular
audience. Think Backyard Brains but with silicon neurons instead of roach
neurons. Numerous software and hardware neuron simulations exist of course,
but not at the non-specialist level we’re thinking of.

What I would like to know from y’all out there in PUI-land is if this is
something you would theoretically be interested in, whether as a demo for
students or as (preferably) something you could let them experiment with on
their own in a classroom or lab setting. Bill Grisham and Frank Krasne’s
excellent SWIMMY CPG software simulation has influenced us down this path
(try it if you haven’t yet!), and we’ve prototyped a hardware version of
something similar. Our 3D printed fish is shown below, and there’s a video
here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OEtlnA9lcvY if you’re interested in
alpha version 0.1 (don't worry about the breadboard and crazy wires, it's
just a prototype platform). The kits would be flexible enough to use in
multiple simulations. For example, students could use instructions and
coding we provide to investigate CPGs, and then by downloading different
code (or trying their hand at writing their own!) and instructions, could
get hands on experience with synaptic plasticity, pain pathways, altered
signaling in the Parkinsonian midbrain, the potentials (pun intended) are
numerous. Pricing would be reasonable, again think Backyard Brains and
their early products like the Spiker Box. Included would be detailed
technical and pedagogical support (if desired), with the goal of ensuring
the electronics are not barriers to student or instructor but pathways to
understanding and investigating the interdisciplinary nature of what we

In the future we may run a more detailed survey to help collect data for
potential funding, but for now all I am hoping to get from you is a “Yes,
that sounds awesome!”, “no, why would I want to do that?”, “have you
thought about trying…..”, or even a “meh” if you’re so inclined. At some
point over the summer we may be looking for users that would like to try
out a kit next fall with their students so we can get some formal feedback
of the user experience. Feel free to email me directly at
joseph.burdo at bc.edu with your thoughts and comments if you can spare a


Joe Burdo
Boston College

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