LSU Biological Sciences Professor Evanna Gleason and a group of LSU neuroscience graduate researchers recently visited McKinley Middle Magnet to talk to students about neurons and brains! Evanna studies synaptic transmission, or how neurons “talk” to one another, in the retina or the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye. During a classroom demo at McKinley Middle, Evanna and Karen Field, Julie Butler, Teisha King, Sonu Shrestha Baral and Tyler Rodriguez showed students how electrical signals can make cockroach legs “dance” and how human muscles work, thanks to neurons.
Last year, Evanna Gleason began recruiting graduate students interested in doing educational neuroscience outreach with the idea of developing demonstrations that would get kids thinking about how their nervous system and muscles work. To develop these demonstrations, they tapped into the creativity of Backyard Brains, a group of scientists and engineers in Michigan who have developed relatively inexpensive and portable recording devices that can demonstrate electrical activity in neurons (through cockroach leg neurons!) and in our muscles.
“When thinking about doing these presentations, I knew that I wanted to target public schools and so I started with someone I knew," Evanna said. “Dr. Mary Legoria is the science specialist at Westdale Heights Academic Magnet Elementary School, and most importantly, my son’s former science teacher! She invited us to their STEAM [science, technology, engineering, arts and math] night in 2016 and 2017, where kids and parents visit a variety of science and technology demonstrations. The kids were a little young for theses demos but they had fun. It’s always a hit when you can make a cockroach leg ‘dance’ to the beat of music!”
This year, Evanna contacted several middle school teachers to offer to bring this outreach activity into their classrooms. Enjoli Muse invited the group of neuroscience researchers to her classroom at McKinley Middle Magnet.
“Our students were very excited about viewing the neuroscience demonstration!” Enjoli said.
“They were able to hear electric signaling in their own contracting muscles using electrodes and the Backyard Brains equipment. They LOVED it,” Karen Field said. Karen studies socially-relevant chemosensory signaling and behavior in the African cichlid, Astatitilapia burtoni, in the Maruska lab. “They had fun hypothesizing about which muscles would result in a louder signal when contracted. They asked a lot of great questions. I think my favorite part was seeing their faces light up when they heard the sounds and also talking to them about college and what graduate school actually entails. It was very fun and rewarding to see kids getting so excited about science!”
Follow Karen on Twitter @K_fieldofdreams.
The researchers also demonstrated how stimulating the hairs on the legs of a cockroach can send signals to the roach’s brain to tell it to run away. They showed students how the brain can send signals to muscles to cause a behavioral reaction.
“By removing a leg from the roach, we were able to supply the signal typically supplied by the brain to cause muscle contractions in the leg,” Julie Butler said. Julie is studying the impact of human-made noises on fish behavior, physiology and communication in the Maruska lab. “Sound waves from music were converted to electrical activity to stimulate the muscle causing muscle contractions in the roach leg. Essentially, we made the leg dance! The middle school kids absolutely loved this! By playing with different songs, we could cause different patterns of muscle contractions: aka different ‘dance moves!’ While this was a relatively simple demonstration, the kids learned about muscle contractions, neural control of muscle movements, and electrical properties of the body. Of course, being middle schoolers, they were also determined to figure out how to make ‘zombie roaches’ that they could control.”
The dancing roach leg was a big hit. “My favorite station was the beat of a dead cockroach’s leg,” second grader Aiden from Westdale Heights Academic Magnet wrote in a letter to thank the neuroscience group for coming to his classroom. “I like when you touch the leg and it moves straight up and backwards. And I like the one where it dances,” first grader Liam from Westdale Heights wrote. Students at McKinley Middle Magnet blogged about their experience.
“I started with a quick overview of how sensory neurons send input signals to the brain,” Sonu Shrestha said, describing the roach leg experiment. “Then I presented the dissected roach leg to the students. Some squirmed away at the sight of it, while others bravely held the extra leg samples lying on the bench, and inspected them eagerly. I showed them how brushing the tiny sensory hairs on a roach appendage generated electrical signal in the leg tissue, which could be heard as audio signals that followed the brush strokes. The students excitedly took turns to stimulate the leg hairs and listen to the sound produced. They were very enthusiastic to learn that the electrical signal flowing through leg tissue is the same kind of signal that propagates through our own bodies. I also shared a few ‘neuro-facts’ that they found interesting and they eagerly asked questions regarding how the roach senses its environment.”
The students also asked Sonu and the other neuroscience graduate students about their career paths and what it was like to be a researcher, to which Sonu answered "absolutely amazing!"
“In addition to the new things they learned about the nervous system, the students had a great opportunity to see how science works! Using model organisms to learn about how our own body functions was one of the things that I think they got out of this excursion.”