Immersive research experience helps secondary school science teachers bring neural engineering to their students

Wayne Gillam

Alexandra Pike with students at Juanita High SchoolAlexandra Pike, a science teacher at Juanita High School in Kirkland, Washington, loved teaching and working with students, but she missed the in-depth research experiences she used to have as an undergraduate at Grinnell College. When she discovered the Research Experience for Teachers (RET) summer program at the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE), she saw an opportunity to not only introduce her students to neural engineering but to also immerse herself in an authentic research experience.

“It’s a very different part of your brain that you use when you’re trying to manage a classroom with 35 students,” Pike said. “Whereas, being able to challenge myself and learn new things…I really missed that.”

Students at Juanita High School working on circuitry unitPike was one of five middle school and high school science teachers who participated in the RET program this summer, working together to design neural engineering curricula for their students. Their work was guided by mentors at the CSNE and informed by research projects each of the participants conducted in CSNE-affiliated labs at the University of Washington. Neural engineering is not normally taught in secondary schools, but the new Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) require teachers to bring engineering design into the science classroom. Many science teachers do not have training in engineering education, so the RET program aims to help fill this gap as part of the CSNE’s wider educational mission.

RET participants in group meeting at the CSNE“Fundamental to the concept of enabling the next generation of scientists is the development of those who will teach them,” the CSNE’s Pre-college Education Manager, Nona Clifton, said. “RETs are excited by the field, the subject matter and the lesson plans they develop. They impart that excitement to students and are able to influence areas of interest and career choices.”

CSNE Education Research Manager, Kristen Bergsman, added, “Through exposure to the field of neural engineering, students learn about opportunities they might not have heard about or considered before. They learn how people with diverse expertise in STEM fields can work together to solve important problems that directly benefit people. For example, smart prosthetic limbs, brain-computer interfaces designed to bypass spinal cord injury and artificial neural networks are all areas where neural engineering is making a big impact. The field brings together cutting-edge science and engineering in ways that many students find exciting. Anytime we can provide opportunities to expand student’s understanding of all the different pathways there are available to them in college and career, it just blows the world open for them.”

Creating curricula informed by a challenging, hands-on research experience

RET participants, Adam King and Phelena Pang, working on curricula at the CSNEIntroducing a student to neural engineering and expanding their awareness of what this field might have to offer them requires that teachers deepen their own scientific knowledge first. The seven-week immersive lab experience in the RET program gives educators a chance to do that, and it often encourages them to move out of their teaching comfort zone.

Adam King, a RET participant and science teacher at Eatonville Middle School in Washington state, appreciated the immersive research experience he had in the Moritz Lab. King’s research project involved assembling and testing electrodes to be used in brain-computer interfaces (BCIs). The neural engineering curriculum unit he designed helps students understand how BCIs work, based on knowledge he gained in the program and his experience in the lab.

“This experience is a deep dive. You go into something [like this], and you may know a little bit about it just by reading, etc., but by doing it, you create a much deeper understanding,” King said. “You’re teaching science, and by doing science you have a much more concrete idea of what goes into it. You can share that with students. You are a part of it.”

RET participant, Laura Moore, with her research poster at the CSNELaura Moore, a RET participant and math and science teacher at Eton School in Bellevue, Washington, found herself initially intimidated by the depth of her research project in the Moritz Lab; however, in hindsight, she realized that it was exactly what she needed.

“When I first had to choose a lab to go into, I avoided anything to do with electrical engineering or math-modeling,” Moore said. “I avoided that, because I thought, ‘I can’t do that.’ I chose a lab that does wet lab work, but I ended up doing [mathematical] modeling after all. It was just what I needed, but I didn’t think I could do it, and I loved it! It was way better than if I would have done something different.”

Photo of networked Arduinos (artificial neural network)Inspired by her research project and RET program experience, Moore will be teaching a new computer programming course this year at Eton School. She is also adapting high school units developed by previous RET participants, The Synapse and Building Artificial Neural Networks, for her middle school classes.

Prior to coming into the RET program, Moore felt that she was struggling to keep up with her student’s interest in coding and cutting-edge science, but she found the intensive work with mathematical equations and computer programming in the Moritz Lab to be reinvigorating.

“I feel like I gained relevancy again as an educator,” Moore said. “I feel that I’ve gained the knowledge and the skills about technology to be confident teaching students or in helping them find the right answers.”

The value of colleague mentorship

RET participants, Alexandra Pike and Phelena Pang, at the CSNECreating, developing and teaching science courses that are relevant and engaging to a middle school or high school student, and also align with new science standards can be a daunting task. To help with this effort, the CSNE piloted a new approach to the RET program this year, inviting former RET participants to return for a second summer. Pike and Phelena Pang, a middle school teacher at Seattle Girl’s School, were both 2016 RET program participants who returned to be part of the 2017 program. They helped serve as mentors to the new participants, giving tips and guidance on how to best develop and implement different types of neural engineering curricula in the classroom.

RET participants, Phelena Pang and Laura Moore, working on curricula“Phelana really helped me get my unit thought through,” Moore said. “She helped me plan it and saved me a lot of time by guiding me in that way. Instead of going toward high school level, she’s helped me keep it [the curriculum] more appropriate to middle school. I think that’s just because of her experience and the work that she did in her classroom last year. She could say to me how long she thought a lesson might go and how long it actually went. It made me think through things more carefully that way. I think for me the experience was way different [than it was for 2016 participants], since there were experienced people in the program. It helped a lot.”

In 2016, Pang developed a unit focusing on the engineering design process, while Pike developed a unit with a strong emphasis on circuitry. This year, in addition to their individual lab research projects, Pike and Pang focused mainly on fine-tuning their 2016 curricula with the insights they gained from piloting the units in their classrooms.

Alexandra Pike and students at Juanita High School working on circuitry unit

When describing her curriculum from the previous year, Pike noted that the unit’s success was part of the reason she returned.

“I did a circuitry unit where the students actually went through the whole engineering design process. I did it with two classes of 32, and it was about a two-week unit. The great thing was that it was fully engineering design. Students had to ask questions, do research, build prototypes and evaluate constraints. They did a scientific poster at the end [of the unit], and they had Pugh charts to evaluate each other’s designs,” Pike said. “I collected data about their views about engineering before the unit and then their views after the unit, and it changed. They had a better sense of the engineering process, they felt more confident with it and they had fun with it. They could see how it would apply later in college. I could not have asked for it to go better.”

Empathy, a wider point of view and human impact

End-user roundtable at the CSNEBeyond the development of curriculum units, this program also offers participants a wider view of the ethical and human impacts surrounding neural engineering, and encourages a unique kind of empathy. As part of the program, RET participants attended practitioner and end-user roundtables at the CSNE and met with members of the CSNE Neuroethics research thrust to help inspire and inform their unit designs.

RET participants, Laura Moore and Sadie Frady, working on curricula at the CSNE“When I go back [to the classroom], I’m going to see my students’ viewpoints a little more intimately now, because it’s put me in their position,” Moore said. “I think I’m going to be a little more empathetic, in a way, and think about how I design curriculum more from their point of view, because I feel like I was a student while I was here.”

Moore also said that she would be thinking carefully about neural engineering from the perspective of an end-user of the technology. This expanded awareness of the ethical, humanistic concerns around BCIs is something other participants came away with as well.

RET participant, Adam King, with his research poster at the CSNE“Earlier this morning, I actually interviewed Frederic Gilbert [CSNE neuroethics team member],” King said. “That’s one of the things that I will try and bring to my sixth graders that I was not fully aware of before, the other [ethical] aspects of this technology.”

In the end, neural engineering research and education at the CSNE is about people. The delight of making research discoveries with colleagues, engineering neural devices in close partnership with people who have disabilities and opening new pathways to learning for the next generation are all at the heart of the Center’s mission. RET program participants at the CSNE are creating cutting-edge neural engineering curricula for their students, while at the same time expanding their own knowledge base and awareness of how these new technologies can impact people.

Alexandra Pike, with her research project poster at the CSNE“I think it’s really important that we are highly educated in what we are doing before we try and educate others about it,” Pike said. “Even if we’re educating students at not as high a level, I think it’s really important for teachers to have knowledge beyond that level and in the real world, not from a textbook. This is a great way to do that.”

For more information about the RET program, visit the program webpage or contact Janis Wignall.