Neuroscience Outreach to Colleges with Limited Resources:
A Workshop Sponsored by The Grass Foundation Held on January 30, 2016
Neuroscience represents one of the most fascinating frontiers of bioscience research. In order to maximize our chances for gaining a deeper understanding of the nervous system, it is essential to attract students with diverse backgrounds into the discipline. The opportunity to visualize neuronal activity and to alter it through experimental manipulations is one of the most effective ways to convey the excitement and the challenges of neuroscience research. Such experiences are readily available to college students at most research universities. However, smaller institutions such as community colleges, state colleges and some small universities do not have the resources, animal facilities or dedicated space for laboratory-based investigations. Novel, low cost resources and the appropriate training of teachers at such institutions are needed in order to broaden the understanding of research in general and the excitement of neuroscience in particular.
The Grass Foundation’s hallmark program is the Grass Fellowship Program at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL). This program has had an enormous impact “fostering the development of neuroscientists in the past 60 years” with over 500 alumni, most of whom are still active in research (Pereda et al., 2013; https://grassfoundation.org/fellowship-overview). In addition to Grass Fellows there are hundreds of other MBL neuroscience course alums. Since the Grass Fellows and MBL course alums have a global presence, their ability to access and provide neuroscience outreach is unparalleled. Individuals from these two groups of neuroscientists were invited to attend a workshop held at the Marine Biological Laboratory on January 30, 2016.
One of the most daunting challenges in the integration of neurophysiology into lecture and laboratory curricula is the high, upfront infrastructure cost of microscopes, electrophysiological equipment, and training to help instructors implement laboratory exercises. The workshop was designed to overcome these obstacles. MBL alums were exposed to neurophysiology software platforms for teaching (Neurons in Action, Version 2) and hands-on experiments utilizing low cost equipment and free software (Backyard Brains; DAQRI). Most of the laboratory exercises are adapted from well-established preparations utilizing invertebrates (Oakley and Schafer, 1978) so that there is no need for an animal facility or animal care approval. The use of battery-powered amplifiers does not require any dedicated laboratory space, and, as a result, the experiments can be conducted in the classroom.
Equipment and Software
Each participant received a Neuron 2-Channel Spikerbox bundle and a DIY Neuron Spikerbox kit (Backyard Brains; https://backyardbrains.com), a copy of Neurons in Action (Sinauer; http://www.sinauer.com/neurons-in-action-2-tutorials-and-simulations-using-neuron.html), a DAQRI Melon Headband (http://daqri.com/home/product/melon/) and supplies. The equipment was used for workshop exercises and is the property of participants to bring back to their home institution.
We wish to thank John Moore and Ann Stuart for their donation of NIA. We also thank DAQRI, LLC. for donating Melon Headbands to measure EEGs (http://www.thinkmelon.com). We thank Teresa Nick (a 1996 Grass Fellow) for facilitating the donation of the headbands.
Forty-five individuals from 16 states/District of Columbia/Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and representing four countries registered and attended the workshop. A list of all participants follows:
Workshop Participants, Jan 30, 2016
A group of eight “facilitators” met on January 29th to test equipment and conduct a run-through of experimental exercises. This group was instrumental in organizing the workshop for the next day. All facilitators felt that one of the most important aspects of a neuroscience workshop was the formation of networks to allow for the flow of information and the establishment of connections that will be important for participants to propose workshops of their own. As a result, ample time was left for informal communication. In addition the importance of flexibility was emphasized in both the agenda and experiments to be run.
The workshop was held on January 30th at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA with the following agenda:
Thursday January 28th
6:30 to 8:30pm Dinner
Friday January 29th
7:30 to 9:00am Breakfast
9:30 to 12:00 Loeb 160 Suite
12:00 to 1:30 Lunch
2:00 to 4:00 Loeb 160 Suite
6:00 to 7:30 Dinner
Saturday January 30th
7:30 to 8:30am Breakfast
9:00 to 10:30 Loeb 160 Suite: Introduction (Steve Zottoli and Felix Schweizer) and Amplifiers A (Kamran Khodakhah, Samantha Key and Chris Chen)
10:30 to 11:00 Coffee break
11:00 to 12:30 Loeb 160 Suite: Sensory and Motor activity in the Cockroach leg (Ulises Ricoy, Melissa Coleman and Bruce Johnson) and Neurons in Action (Rhonda Dzakpasu)
12:30 to 1:30 Lunch
2:00 to 3:30 Loeb 160 Suite: Giant fiber conduction in the Earthworm (Ulises Ricoy, Melissa Coleman and Bruce Johnson) and EEG (Teresa Nick)
3:30 to 4:00 Coffee Break
4:00 to 4:30 Skype conversation with John Moore and Ann Stuart on the development of Neurons in Action.
5:00 to 5:45 Loeb 160 Suite: Amplifiers B (Kamran Khodakhah, Samantha Key and Chris Chen)
6:00 to 7:30 Dinner
8:00 to 10:00 Speck Auditorium: General Discussion Session and What’s Next?
Sunday January 31st
7:00 to 9:30 Breakfast and Departure
All workshop participants had a background in neuroscience and, as a result, everyone was a facilitator and added ideas or unique approaches to teaching neurophysiology. For example, many unplanned activities occurred including the recording from the crayfish heart, recording from the cockroach cercal nerves, recording from the crayfish CNS and stimulation of the human ulnar nerve while recording EMGs from the arm.
The comparison of participant Pre- and Post- Questionnaires clearly indicated that the workshop content and training provided the knowledge base needed for participants to plan their own workshop.
The Saturday evening discussion session allowed participants to share their thoughts about the day’s activities and to discuss plans on how they might propose a workshop of their own.
Some of the main discussion points follow:
–Participants were encouraged to submit proposals to The Grass Foundation either as individuals or as teams with connections made at the workshop. To extend the limited resources of the Foundation, participants were encouraged to ask home institutions to provide matching funds. Other institutions such as museums and societies (e.g., Society for Neuroscience) might be approached to contribute as well.
— Many participants were interested in developing workshops that allowed students to minimize a “cookbook” approach to science and to experience discovery. Exercises might be divided into two sessions, one to introduce students to the preparation and equipment and the other would allow students to creatively design their own experiments.
–Everyone enjoyed the “gee whiz” aspects of the experiments run during the workshop but there was a desire to focus on neurophysiology concepts and to provide quantitative approaches such as action potential sorting to allow analysis and interpretation of results. Other software packages and stimulator programs were discussed.
–The inclusion of fundamental principles in amplifier function in the workshop sparked an interest in finding approaches to help students better understand basic properties of amplifiers. Perhaps finding ways to team up with engineering colleagues too not only discuss principles but also to build devices would meet that need.
–Although the workshop focus is to provide training opportunities to college faculty, the need is greater and might include high school teachers, technicians, and biotech individuals.
Fellows have been encouraged to adapt aspects of the MBL workshop to propose a workshop that best fit the needs of faculty at their targeted institutions. These proposals will be reviewed by Grass Foundation Trustees and awarded on a competitive basis and according to resources available.
The success of this workshop, and its impact on neurophysiological education, prompted The Grass Foundation to fund a workshop in 2019. Further outreach efforts continue, led by Dr. Ulises Ricoy of the University of Arizona.
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