So cool, you'll want to buy a cockroach


So everything about what I’m going to tell you is awesome. So awesome, you're going to want to buy one of these:

So cute!


You remember those high school experiments when you monitored (in real time) the nervous system of an insect? Me neither! Neuroscience experiments are not typically part of a grade school or high school lab. Well, a group of enterprising neuroscience graduate students at the University of Michigan has come up with a clever solution to bring experimental neuroscience to the masses. They founded a new company, Backyard Brains, that makes inexpensive lab kits for monitoring nerve impulses in insects. From BBrains you can order a kit and a couple of cockroaches so that you can look at the actual nerve impulses in a roach leg. And it’s not that expensive, about a hundred dollars. So I think we can agree, that's pretty cool in its own right. But how do you get the word out to educators about this amazing resource - especially K12 teachers who have tremendous influence over their students? Well, one way is to publish a scientific article describing the device, how it's used, and what young minds can learn from it. Even better, you could publish your article in a journal that's freely available to the public, a so-called open access journal. But most open access journals need to charge publication fees to cover their editorial and publication costs. For a group of cash-starved graduate students, the dream of publication might end here. But it doesn't. In the third (and most mind blowing chapter), the U of Michigan students decided to cover their publication costs using crowd sourced capital. Crowd sourcing is when you ask the many people to each play a small role in getting something done - in this case each contributing a few bucks to help the students publish the educational paper. You can (and should) watch Backyard Brains pitch here. So lets add up the layers of awesome in this story. A group of graduate students decided they wanted to make science more accessible to people, especially kids learning about how nerves work in the years when they form lasting opinions about the value of science. Then to top that, they wanted everything that they did completely accessible to everyone. And then to top that, they funded it by appealing for financial help from the masses. They made science cool, and people responded. As of writing this post, they’re well past their funding goal to publish. Coolest thing I’ve heard anyone do with a cockroach.



I had the chance to see Tim Marzullo, one of the inventors of the cockroach kit, demonstrate it live in a lecture hall. In our demonstration, he threaded a wire into a cockroach leg, hooked the wire up to a few electrical components, and then fed it into the microphone port on a laptop. Just like that, the class was all set up to record neuron impulses and do experiments. The kit is a lot like their marketing approach -- clever, nimble, and open-book.

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