Shoestring Science, with a Smartphone
A simple, easily replicated science experiment for high schoolers proves that neuroscience research doesn’t have to be an expensive endeavor.

_Catherine von Reyn

von Reyn is a professor in the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems.

There’s no doubt that a rich/poor divide plagues education, especially in equipment-heavy STEM fields. But a high school summer camp curriculum created in Drexel’s School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems, called BIOMED Summer Academy, proves that with a little ingenuity, high-end educational neuroscience research can be affordable.

Professor Catherine von Reyn regularly hosts BIOMED Summer Academy for 11th and 12th graders, who work with students in her Neural Circuit Engineering Lab using high-speed videography to detect the responses and movements of Drosophila fruit flies.

Over the years, she has perfected a workshop that any educator can replicate to teach students how nerve cells trigger behaviors.

But instead of using high-speed cameras that can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars, the students are able to use their own phones.

“This is how we can make this research accessible to high school students,” von Reyn explains.

Her goal is to introduce the high schoolers to neurotechnology and neuroscience concepts — e.g. What is a neuron? What is a neural circuit? What is a sensorimotor transformation? What is optogenetics? Optogenetics is a research technique that uses light stimuli and genetic intervention to study how neurons activate underlying behaviors.

Her workshop is designed to help the students discover how rapid sensory transformation happens, using fruit flies as the test subjects.

She published the results of her workshops in PLOS ONE, along with public instructions other educators can use to replicate her course.

The goal, from von Reyn’s perspective? “We want to see the students participate in the learning process versus simply receiving and memorizing” data, she says.