Who We Are
Muscles Alive! is a neuroscience educational outreach program. It is an extension of research topics and techniques used in the Neuromuscular Function Lab at Colorado State University. The program uses hands-on, kid-friendly equipment to perform experiential demonstrations to teach 4th-12th graders about how their brain communicates with their muscles and how their muscles communicate with their brain. Participants get to see, hear, record, and experience their own brain’s command to the muscle and experience very robust, fun, and attention-getting illusions and phenomena related to reflexes and proprioception (ability to sense the position and orientation and movement of one’s body).
Over the spring 2013 semester, the Muscles Alive! team has engaged hundreds of kids at several large events, including the Colorado Science and Engineering Fair. Age-appropriate accompanying materials are used, and the demonstrations are easily altered to suit different ages. This initial “proof of concept” stage has been well received among students, likely because of the experiential nature of the demonstration – it involves electrical signals generated from their own body, displayed and recorded in real time.
Previously, demonstrations like this would have been rare and limited to university laboratories with expensive, bulky, and non-portable research equipment. Therefore, being able to see, hear, record, and experience one’s own brain command arriving at the muscle was simply not accessible to the public or in science education. In partnership with Backyard Brains, Inc., the Muscles Alive! team helped develop a new, inexpensive, portable bioamplifier that is perfect for use in just about any public setting. It employs simple electronic circuitry and disposable electrode materials that kids can even make themselves. The demonstrations are clearly enjoyed by kids – there just seems to be something captivating about experiencing your own neuromuscular signaling. When combined with a simply explained neurophysiology lesson, it is a memorable and thus impactful educational experience.
Part of the mission of a land-grant university like Colorado State is to reach out and extend the expertise of faculty out to the community. The goal of Muscles Alive! is to convey the excitement of neuromuscular physiology beyond the walls of the university and use these hands-on demonstrations to spark an interest in human physiology in young children. In today’s complex and highly technologically based society it is more important than ever to engage our youth to be fascinated, interested and exited about STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) learning.
Many functions of the human brain and peripheral nervous system remain surprisingly mysterious, even after many decades of research. So, too, are the mechanisms that underlie major disabling neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis, peripheral neuropathy, and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). About one in five people will develop some sort of neurological disorder over their lifetime. Sparking interest in students who could become future neuroscientists could help produce cures that will reduce the societal burden of these diseases. Also, more generally, programs like this will increase science literacy and appreciation for biomedical science and healthcare in the general population.
The Muscles Alive! program will also enrich the undergraduate or graduate experience of CSU students who volunteer or get independent study credit for participating in Muscles Alive!.
What We Need
The electrical signals in the muscle tissue, which result from the brain’s command conveyed through the nervous system, are displayed using a free App on an iPad and also played through a common audio speaker. The electrodes are made of Popsicle sticks and brass brads. Everything is small, portable, and non-threatening. The electrodes can be placed over any muscle on the body while a person engages in everyday activities such as pinching fingers, chewing, smiling, lifting weights, arm wrestling, or even flaring the nostrils. The sound of the electrical activity is impressive and the visuals are vivid. The subject can change the command from their brain and instantly see the result on the screen and hear it loudly from the speaker.
Currently, the available equipment allows only a few stations to be set up for any given demonstration in a classroom or other venue. Thus far we are an embryonic program, operating with loaner iPads, small iPods, loaner iPhones, etc. Disposable supplies and miscellaneous equipment have been purchased with personal funds. Also, since its creation, Muscles Alive! has been staffed by volunteers and has been directed and coordinated on a volunteer basis by Dr. Brian Tracy, the director of the Neuromuscular Function Laboratory. To remain robust and viable over the longer term, the program needs an hourly part-time coordinator.
How You Can Support Us
Make a contribution. Partner with us and together we can build a sustainable program that engages young minds and brings awareness to mechanisms that underlie major disabling neurological disorders. Your contribution today will help us reach young minds that could eventually create cures for neurological conditions.
Spread the word to others. Everybody wants kids to have enriching science experiences of high quality. Chances are you or someone you know has school-age children whose school may be looking for just such a demonstration to stimulate young minds in the classroom. Help us gain publicity. Spread the word via email, Like Us on Facebook, and tweet our information.
The goal for this project is to raise $10,000.
|Purchase of more equipment to increase the number of demo “stations”||$1,000|
|Purchase of iPads for larger format display of the data||$3,000|
|Purchase of a dedicated laptop for similar classroom-based display of the data||$1,000|
|Occasional purchase of disposable supplies and equipment||$500|
|Printing and preparation of educational materials, visual displays, posters, etc.||$500|
|Transportation costs, mileage, for travel to events and schools||$1,000|
Part-time hourly pay for an advanced student or staff member who would coordinate the program and supervise the activities of a team of CSU students: $3,000 (200 hrs x $15/hr)