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Working at CSU

Professor promotes hands-on neuroscience education

May 3, 2013

Brian Tracy used Popsicle sticks and iPads to create the neuroscience education public outreach program, Muscles Alive!, which has since been used for everything from science fair projects to the Brainium event at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery.

"That's so cool!" A young girl exclaimed as she saw her muscle electricity flash across the iPad screen when she moved her muscles. 

It was all captured by electrodes made of Popsicle sticks and brass brads attached to the iPad with a few wires. Health and Exercise Science Professor Brian Tracy smiled, displaying that unmistakable joy attained from watching a child learn something new, and enjoy themselves while doing so. "It never gets old," Tracy said at the recent Colorado Science and Engineering Fair, the statewide science fair finals for middle and high school students held at CSU's Lory Student Center.

"What we're trying to do is to extend what we do in my lab and impact the community with this science education outreach project. We call it 'Muscles Alive!' It's basically an outgrowth of the research we do in my lab which involves measuring muscle activity, and we're taking that lab expertise and applying it in a different way, through science education outreach," Tracy said. "So with these kids we are measuring the electrical activity that occurs in their muscles, known as the electromyogram, and letting them hear it from a speaker, see it vividly on an iPad screen, and so they experience it while they're actually generating the command to the muscles from their own brain."

"The overall goal is for kids to be able to see the neuroscience that explains how your brain works and how muscles work, and learn about the physiology of their own body. That's a lot more fun than reading a book."

Launching the program

After watching a TEDed talk by Ph.D. neuroscientist Greg Gage, the co-founder of Backyard Brains, Tracy realized that the small, inexpensive, DIY amplifier Gage used in his educational demo with cockroach neurons could be altered with his help to enable them to record human muscle electrical signals extremely inexpensively.

In Tracy's lab, the equipment used to record the electromyogram (EMG) is expensive (>$20,000), bulky, used for research, and- most importantly - not portable, so it's not accessible in the public educational setting.

Tracy emailed Gage, who quickly recognized the potential of Tracy's idea and, using Tracy's experience with muscle signals and neuromuscular physiology, collaborated with him over the summer to produce Backyard Brains' new Human EMG Spikerbox.

The Spikerbox is inexpensive, very portable, and works extremely well, allowing kids to see and record their EMG using a free App on an iPod or iPad, hear the EMG on a speaker, and use the DIY electrodes themselves to experiment with their own body's neural signals.

Using this new technology, Tracy created the neuroscience education public outreach program, Muscles Alive!, which debuted publicly in Colorado at the Little Shop of Physics open house, and has since been used for everything from science fair projects, lab tour demos, teaching biological electricity in Brian Jones' Physics 122 laboratory, Brain Awareness Week at Rocky Mountain High School, the Colorado Science and Engineering Fair, and was even featured at the Brainium event at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery.

Technology wanted across nation

In addition, several neuromuscular physiology professors across the country have purchased Human EMG Spikerboxes and are doing small scale public outreach and Tracy has received inquiries from elsewhere in the state about using the technology in educational outreach programs. "We are very excited to see where this goes," Tracy said. "If we can get a relatively modest amount of pilot funding to get this off the ground, we can make it a more robust and on-going program to benefit students, improved STEM education, and impact the public community, so we're really excited about the future."

The Department of Health and Exercise Science is part of the College of Health and Human Sciences (formerly the College of Applied Human Sciences). Tracy was recognized with the College's 2013 Outstanding Teacher Award, as well as the 2013 CSU Alumni Association Best Teacher Award.

Contact: Gretchen Gerding
Phone: (970) 491-5182