YSP-REACH offers secondary students an introduction to neural engineering

Wayne Gillam

During the summer of 2017, the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE) piloted a new program designed to increase knowledge about neural engineering among middle school and high school students. YSP-REACH is an offshoot of the already existing Young Scholars Program (YSP), and it complements other summer programs offered by the CSNE, such as the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), Research Experience for Teachers (RET) and Research Experience for Veterans (REV). Unlike these other programs, which offer intensive lab research experiences over many weeks, YSP-REACH offers students a broad overview of neural engineering within a shorter timeframe. The program also provides students with basic preparation for college studies in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects, and future STEM careers.

“My goals for the program were that the students would find it interesting and come away happy about it. It was an experiment, and I wanted to find out what worked,” the CSNE’s Pre-college Education Manager, Nona Clifton, said. “One of the things that made my job so easy was to be able to pick and choose from great activities, impressive labs and fabulous, experienced presenters at the CSNE.”

The program offered students an introduction to neural engineering, neuroethics, scientific communication, basic computer coding and the latest developments in brain-computer interfaces. It took place on two CSNE-affiliated campuses, the University of Washington (UW) and San Diego State University (SDSU).


The 23 participants in YSP-REACH on the UW campus were high school students, primarily from local area schools including Chief Sealth, Franklin and Cleveland high schools, but there were students from Oregon, California and Texas as well. The UW program ran for eight days during mid-summer and featured lab tours, classes and workshops. Highlights included an introduction to neural engineering and a scientific communication class taught by CSNE University Education Manager, Lise Johnson, brain activities led by CSNE Executive and Education Director, Eric Chudler, and a talk by CSNE Director of Industry Relations and Innovation, Scott Ransom.

“Scott Ransom’s talk was very eye-opening about how industry and research relate,” said Tommy Nguyen, a student at Chief Sealth High School. “I didn’t realize you could do both.”

According to Clifton and data gathered by independent evaluator, Jill Weber at the Center for Research and Learning, students in YSP-REACH at the UW came away with a heightened interest in research, an expanded awareness of career options and pathways, knowledge about the ethical impacts of neural technologies, and increased awareness of the skills needed to become a neural engineer.

“For a career, I always thought more of physics and engineering, but this program opened up [an awareness of] medical applications and showed me the philosophical implications of design,” said Eshan Kemp, a student at Newport High in Bellevue, Washington.


On the SDSU campus, 14 students participated in YSP-REACH during a two-week summer camp, and the program included middle school students as well as high school participants. Students were from local public, private, charter and MESA program schools, and as described by CSNE Co-director of Education at SDSU, Sweta Sarkar, these students were motivated, sharp and eager to learn. Sarkar was impressed by thoughtful presentations the program participants gave on how they envisioned the future of neural engineering and where they might want to contribute to the field.

“One student talked about how she wanted to develop an injectable electrode instead of the surgical ones used today and how this electrode would be programmed to latch onto the correct site in the human brain,” Sarkar said, giving an example from one of the student presentations.

The program at SDSU included tours of CSNE member labs run by Sarkar and Sam Kassegne, a meeting with CSNE neuroethics researcher and SDSU professor, Joseph Stramondo, and hands-on learning. In one such learning opportunity, students were asked to work on an engineering project designed to make a servomotor rotate by using only their thoughts. To accomplish this daunting-sounding task, they worked with headsets that captured electrical signals from the brain, recorded on the scalp by an electroencephalograph (EEG). These EEG signals were then transmitted wirelessly to an Arduino board attached to the servomotor. Students wrote software code on the Arduino to parse the incoming signal data, mapped the signals to an attention level and created a rotation in the servomotor blade proportional to the user’s attention level. The higher the attention level, the greater the degree of rotation in the servomotor. The students also received training in setting up the necessary hardware connections between several devices.

According to Sarkar, feedback she received from students let her know that the program was having an impact by increasing students’ knowledge, helping them make informed decisions about future career paths and providing a better understanding of the power and reach of neural engineering.

Expanding students’ awareness of future options

For many students, one of the main benefits of YSP-REACH was how it made them aware of interdisciplinary educational and career options they previously didn’t know were available to them. Clifton described how student viewpoints changed from the start to the end of the program.

“When students were looking at their future options, whether to go into computer science, or engineering, or biology, or even to start a business, they were thinking in pretty discrete terms. Do this, or this, or this,” Clifton said. “When you’re talking about a field so complex [like neural engineering] you need many different disciplines and points of view. They felt very relieved, in many cases, that they could choose the field that interested them and still have a wide range of choices for what they could be involved in. They just saw a broader range of options.”

“I had always dreaded the question, ‘What’s your major?’” said Rashida Hakim, a student at Tesla STEM in Redmond, Washington. “I like biology, computer science, engineering, and physics. I learned that these fields are interdisciplinary [in neural engineering].”

The success and popularity of this program with students has prompted the CSNE to offer YSP-REACH again next summer at both the UW and SDSU. At the UW, the program will run July 16-20, 2018 and an additional week August 6-10 to help meet student demand. The dates for YSP-REACH at SDSU in 2018 are yet to be determined. Applications for YSP-REACH 2018 will be open from Nov. 1, 2017 to Feb. 1, 2018 and are available on the CSNE website.

For more information about YSP-REACH, visit the program webpage or contact Janis Wignall.