10/03/2013 04:58 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Is DIY Neuroscience the Future of Education?

Millennials were raised to value education. We were taught that nothing should get in the way of us doing our homework and there was no better day than the one in which we brought home a particularly good report card. (In my house this always meant chocolate malts and staying up past my bedtime to watch Star Trek with my dad.) Once the recession hit, many of us retreated to the fortress of academia and started acquiring degrees. But, as the worth of these degrees is increasingly debated and the total U.S student loan nears a record breaking $1 trillion dollars, we have started to question that traditional approach to education.

Today, many of us are turning to other forms of education such as bootcamps, apprenticeships and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Though online courses have existed for some time, recently they have become more broadly accepted by students as a reputable way to learn. In fact roughly 50 percent of Millennial college students feel that they no longer need a physical classroom to get a good education.

Interested in this trend, I asked my friend Nadja Oertelt and Professor David Cox who are working together to organize a HarvardX class on neuroscience this October. Their class will depart from the standard MOOC format of lecture and quizzes by engaging students in, "Guided Interactivity, where interactive simulations are seamlessly woven into the flow of instruction." This means that the students will be encouraged to experiment with neuroscience in their own living rooms! In order to achieve this, students will use a DIY neuroscience tool called a SpikerBox.

Maude Standish: How do you think education has changed in the last five years?

David Cox: The advent of Massive Open Online Courses has obviously changed the landscape of education, but, I think the surprising thing is actually how little has really changed. MOOCs add in assessment and credentialing, and that's important, but most of them still conform to extremely traditional educational model. Just shoveling lecture videos online and adding some multiple choice quizzes takes the parts of the big-lecture-hall format that frankly weren't that compelling or effective to begin with. To treat the web as an internet-sized lecture hall misses the true potential for leveraging the internet to transform education. There is enormous still-untapped potential. Many MOOCs today have drop-out rates of 95 percent or greater. The students were interested enough to sign up, but not interested enough to see the course through.

MS: What do you think is the future of education?

DC: The hype surrounding MOOCs was that they were going to somehow displace the traditional in-person university education. I think a more nuanced vision of the future is emerging, where online learning and traditional in-person learning co-exist. Online learning shouldn't just replicate on-campus lectures--it should extend and enrich, with rich interactive content, community building and flexibility to mix-and-match tools and content however it suits a given educational context. To do this, I think we'll need to ditch the notion that university education is synonymous with "lecturing," and we'll want to drop the notion of a "course" as the smallest unit of educational value. I want students and teachers around the world to be able to flexibly pick and choose how they want to use the content that we produce.

MS: One of the ways that you are ditching the traditional lecture hall approach is by adding this element of the SpikerBox, making it so students can conduct their own DIY neuroscience experiments. Can you explain how the SpikerBox works?

Nadja Oertelt: Neurons communicate using tiny messages of electricity called spikes. The SpikerBox amplifies these messages (which we call 'spikes,' signals, or action potentials) so that they can be heard on its speaker and seen on your mobile phone. Like microscopes that amplify small cells, or telescopes that magnify distant planets. The SpikerBox allows us to measure, and experience something otherwise non perceivable. I think the amazing thing about these little devices is that they take electrophysiology--a field that is generally restricted to labs with really expensive equipment--and makes it accessible to absolutely everyone.

MS: Why is DIY Neuroscience important? What role does it play in the world?

NO: DIY Neuroscience, in my mind, is simply a small part of a larger citizen science movement that one could argue is rooted in the 19th century idea of the 'Gentleman Scientist,' an individual who conducted research outside of institutional settings. Think of people like Charles Darwin and Benjamin Franklin. Generally today unless you have been a part of these elite or closed communities, you as a member of the public can't engage with scientific experimentation outside of school or your home, and certainly not to the extent that research labs do 'science.' But with advancements in cheaper and better technology anyone can build, experiment and conduct more relevant science in their own homes.

MS: Has the SpikerBox been used for experiments before? If so what kind of experiments?

NO: Greg Gage, our collaborator and one of the founders of Backyard Brains, has been using SpikerBoxes around in the world in educational contexts since the company's inception. He has watched driven students build boxes, modify them, and conduct increasingly advanced experiments. There is already a community of SpikerBox users who upload their adventures in home science on YouTube. I think the amazing thing about these little devices is that they take electrophysiology -- a field that is generally restricted to labs with really expensive equipment -- and makes it accessible to absolutely everyone. So the question isn't "are people doing groundbreaking experiments?" But rather "are people engaging and understanding science in a way that was previously inaccessible?" And, yes! They are!

If you are interested in becoming a citizen scientist, you can still sign up for the Fundamentals of Neuroscience taught by Professor David Cox and produced by Nadja Oertelt. Additionally, you can get your own SpikerBox by helping Kickstart their vision of DIY science experimentation.