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Teaching children neuroscience through technology and toys

Teaching children neuroscience through technology and toys

May 13 2014

By Holly Winman
  • Education

A closer look at NT100 ‘one to watch’ Puzzlebox Brainstorms
by Steve Castellotti, founder of Puzzlebox Brainstorms

The concept of manipulating the physical world with just one’s mind - moving physical objects, communicating without sound, and even controlling the elements of fire and water have long been the stuff of science fiction and comic book heroes. Now these things are possible using combinations of relatively simple, off-the-shelf gadgets and hardware.

Brainstorms was built out of the idea that this new, fascinating form of technology, otherwise known as Brain-Computer Interface (BCI), could be leveraged to foster a passion for science, engineering, and mathematics in students of all ages.

Steve Castellotti, founder of Puzzlebox Brainstorms

The field of BCI has evolved in recent years from a community of several hundred researchers toiling in their labs to include developers and enthusiasts from a vast cross-section of disciplines around the world. Brainstorms has placed itself at the centre of this, in-between academics and armchair dreamers, professionals and hackers to produce simple lesson plans for teachers to introduce and explore bite-sized concepts in biology, physics, electronics, and software programming. At the same time activities and experiments carried out by the students themselves underscore good mental practices and exercises, such as learning to achieve and maintain mental focus and clarity of thought.

The Rosemont School Project

One of the first algorithms which became commonly available in the field of BCI supplied the ability to measure levels of attention and concentration using EEG (Electroencephalography). The Brainstorms project used this as a means to add direct mental control to robots and vehicles built by 11 and 12 year olds at the Rosemont School, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania using programmable LEGO Mindstorms kits. Students were divided into groups and alternated roles including designer, engineer, data collector, and scientist (predicting and analysing results). Each student would take turns racing their creations by performing mental tasks such as arithmetic, silently singing song lyrics and foreign language translation to achieve focus. The faster focus was achieved the sooner their vehicle would move, and the higher their consistency of thought the faster it would go.

Students were encouraged to experiment to discover which mental exercises worked best for them. They would then meet regularly to challenge students from other groups and record their results. The project is currently funded by productising open source toys and devices, such as the Puzzlebox Orbit, a brain-controlled helicopter launched through Kickstarter, another 2013 NT100 venture featured on the Social Tech Guide.

BCI has the potential to deliver the most desired and impressive modes of interaction between mind and machine. The brain’s pre-frontal cortex, positioned behind the forehead, is frequently associated with conscious thought and is an easily accessible area for EEG due to the signals originating behind exposed skin. This is the area from which attention and focus readings are currently recorded for use with Brainstorms. However, alternative areas of the brain such as the sensorimotor cortex, parietal lobe, and occipital lobe provide considerably more information-rich targets. These zones enable fully three-dimension control and steering, pattern matching useful for composing text and complex menu selection, and high-definition visual processing algorithms which require little or no training on the part of the user.

However receiving these signals cleanly entails a host of fresh challenges. Due to the differences between the shapes and sizes of heads and especially the complication of hair, including certain styles and hair products, it makes designing a one-size-fits-all EEG headset solution a significant challenge. Furthermore, the most prominent physical locations of the signals themselves vary from user to user, requiring fine-tuning on a per-person basis. Once determined, the ideal sensor location and frequency exhibited by an individual can even drift over time as neuroplasticity kicks in and the brain adapts to stimuli. Therefore a form of mutual training and adaptation on both the part of the individual user and the control software is necessary to achieve best results with many BCI skills.

Complicated learning algorithms and advanced biosensor materials are driving innovation in this space, and solutions are slowly being revealed. Puzzlebox’s goal as a company is to develop new toys and devices related to each new capability revealed as consumer-grade EEG headsets provide coverage over these brain structures. The future is looking very exciting indeed as new capabilities are delivered from research labs to the home.

View for the future

This year Brainstorms is forging ahead with a particular focus on the university demographic. While classrooms filled with younger students have provided great fun and anecdotal evidence of sustained positive results over time, in order to properly grow the project credible efficacy must be shown. Puzzlebox has more broadly expanded its product line to include custom-design hardware and circuitry which opens the door to new lessons, tools, and techniques for discussion. This more advanced material may require a higher base-level of understanding, but should therefore attract ideas from those innovative minds best placed to develop capabilities and explore new creative directions.

For example the brain-controlled Orbit helicopter is steered by a simple infrared protocol, and our multi-purpose Pyramid is capable both of broadcasting this transmission as well as receiving and recording novel infrared signals from any external device. Combined with Bluetooth this recording can be re-purposed to operate not only a vast spectrum of third-party toys such as cars, boats, and planes, but also home entertainment systems such as televisions and stereos.  Brainstorms hackers can use these capabilities to build new and exciting devices such as alarm clocks that can turn on a TV each morning, change to a weather or news channel, and set an appropriate volume. ‘Gravity, Puzzlebox’s next product demonstrates principles of electricity and magnetism by adapting the Pyramid hardware combined with induction to operate a glowing sphere which hovers and spins in mid-air above a mirrored platform.

Finally Brainstorms is undertaking a new and unique initiative to outsource the actual manufacturing of Pyramids and its derivatives to hackerspaces and colleges which have the basic necessary equipment, such as 3D printers and CNC routers. With completely open-source components and hardware schematics, the opportunity exists for anyone to collect and assemble Arduino-compatible circuit boards plus design and print completely custom plastic cases according to their individual needs and preferences. Furthermore, Puzzlebox will help match this new breed of creative engineers with buyers and backers for their innovations.

Over the past five years the Brainstorms project has evolved from a single classroom experiment to an international program seeking to help and collaborate with teachers the world round. And Puzzlebox has evolved alongside into a thriving commercial business through the open exchange of ideas and technology between education and the consumer realm. As the field of Brain-Computer Interface continues to expand we hope to find new ways to involve and encourage students of all ages to engage in science and learning.

Follow Puzzlebox on Twitter: @PuzzleboxBCI

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