“Lowering barriers to entry for any field of study advances education as a whole.” – USA

The terms “neuroscience” and “entry-level” seem paradoxical, but for Tim Marzullo,  taking science accessible is something like the holy grail of innovation. In early 2009, Marzullo co-founded Backyard Brains (motto: Neuroscience for Everyone), with the goal of designing and making inexpensive equipment (<$100) that allows scientists of all ages to study and understand the electrical activity of the brains of insects. The idea began as a self-imposed engineering challenge between Tim and his friend Greg Gage to improve neuroscience outreach to local schools in Michigan. The enthusiastic response from colleagues and educators nationally led to the formation of Backyard Brains, offering a kit combining invertebrate preparations with off-the-shelf electronics that provides insight into the inner workings of the brain. What started as a side project soon became much more, and Tim now works full-time on Backyard Brains to take the project out of the workshop and into the hands of student-scientists around the world. Here, Marzullo talks about why neuroscience for the masses makes good sense and what innovations he’d like to see in education.

Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?

By inventing low-cost gear to study neurons, we are allowing students to do the kind of experiments you could typically only do in advanced undergraduate courses (or even graduate school). Lowering barriers to entry for any field of study advances education as a whole.

What has changed as a result of your efforts?

Students around the country are becoming familiar with neuroscience in a hands-on way.

How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

Enthusiastic teachers will always be willing to invest in new ways of teaching. Entrepreneurs interested in improving educational tools should be constantly visiting high schools and doing demos to see what the teachers and students want.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

We have exploited mobile devices (iPads) to allow students to see real neural activity, and we have used off-the-shelf electronics to design our inventions.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

Not my field of expertise as I am not a professional teacher. But as an entrepreneur, I would like to see more start-ups inventing solutions for teachers and students.

What is your country doing right to support education?

We are funded by a grant from the NIH (National Institutes of Health) to design better educational tools to teach neuroscience.

What conditions must change in your country to better support education?

More emphasis on individual projects and invention. I would love to see things in FIRST robotics for biology. iGEM is a notable example. We need more!

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

Bringing students into the process of scientific discovery. Adding to the collective body of knowledge rather than simply learning what has already been discovered.

What advice would you give a new teacher (or anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

Hang out at hackerspaces to see what people are inventing. Most people want to help education, and inventors just need to know what teachers need.

What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?

The Maker movement is very exciting. This is in reaction to the “staring at a screen” trend that we have been going down the last 30 years. We are swinging back into using our hands again.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

A mobile phone from 10 years in the future. By then the devices will be basically like Star Trek tricorders that you can use to record and measure your world and share it.


About Timothy Marzullo,
Co-founder, Backyard Brains

Tim Marzullo received his B.S. in Biochemistry from the University of Texas at Austin in 2001 and his Ph.D. in Neuroscience in 2008. As a research engineer at NeuroNexus Technologies, he developed advanced neural interfaces for researchers around the world. He received a Kauffman Postdoctoral Entrepreneurial Fellowship to start Backyard Brains, and is now running the business and serving as Principal Investigator of a National Institutes of Mental Health grant, Backyard Brains: Bringing Neurophysiology into Secondary Schools.

Birthplace: Dayton, Ohio
Current residence: Ann Arbor, Michigan and Santiago, Chile
Education: B.S. Biochemistry, Ph.D. Neuroscience
Website I check every day: Slashdot, BoingBoing
Person who inspires me most: Burt Rutan
Favorite childhood memory:
Seeing the T.Rex. at the NYC Museum of Natural History
Next travel destination (work or pleasure): The Atacama Desert in Northern Chile
When was the last time you laughed? Why? Listening to “Car Talk” this past Saturday. Many of the caller’s problems I have had with my own old cars (1973 El Camino, 1981 Tercel).
Favorite book: Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut
Favorite music: Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska”
Your favorite quote or motto: Haz lo no más.

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