DIY science MOOC seeks funding on Kickstarter to conduct brain experiments at home

Unless you work in a lab, there are few opportunities to perform science experiments as an adult. While kids and teens can involve themselves in countless experiments during science class, the opportunity shrinks once we leave educational institutions. A Harvard professor is running a Kickstarter to bring it all back, utilizing an immersive Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) and special devices that help ordinary people monitor the brain.

Harvard Assistant Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology David Cox is seeking $10,000 to run MCB80x, a neuroscience MOOC available on educational non-profit edX. While it will offer open enrollment and online lecture in the vein of traditional MOOCs, what sets it apart (and why it has come to Kickstarter) is its desire to allow students to perform DIY neuroscience experiments on invertebrates with open source hardware.

Check out the campaign’s video below:

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The proceeds of the campaign will go toward providing a crucial element to these experiments — a neuron “bioamplifier” called SpikerBox. Developed by neurological education outreach company Backyard Brains, which successfully funded a campaign to develop a roach mind control unit in July, the SpikerBox costs $100 on the company’s website and allows the user to monitor the neurons of a live animal. Cox’s fundraiser will distribute SpikerBoxes to students in his pilot class, provided the student fills out a questionnaire about materials and resource availability.

The number of SpikerBox units distributed will be determined by the number of students that sign up, and the nature of the bulk pricing deal with Backyard Brains. Backers of the project aren’t automatically involved in the MOOC (instead they get updates on the course’s progress), but can back to purchase their own SpikerBox and sign up when the course is available. Of course, that also means that anyone interested in signing up for the MOOC can purchase their own SpikerBox directly, leaving the Kickstarter-obtained ones to other students.

From there, the SpikerBoxes will enable students to conduct home experiments on cockroaches and worms — which, as Cox notes on the campaign’s Kickstarter page, follow strict ethical guidelines to ensure the safety of the animals. After the course is over, the students will be able to keep the SpikerBoxes that are distributed.

“The only ‘strings’ attached are that we’ll ask students to contribute back what they find (ideally a video of them performing experiments),” Cox wrote in an email. “We also hope to give some fraction of the SpikerBoxes to science teachers who are taking our course, so that they can share with their students over multiple years.”

This opportunity for DIY Science takes MOOCs in a new direction, offering field experience in addition to online courses. The avenue for open online education has widened, especially in recent months as companies like Amplify and NovoEd have embraced the platform for educational outreach. And, with new activities that give online students a way to apply their curriculum to IRL experiences, more exciting offerings could finally trigger a positive feedback loop that motivates more people to seek education in their free time.