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Controlling machines with your mind

Suitable age range: 11-14 yrs

Curriculum topics: Structure and function of living organisms - The skeletal and muscular systems + Cells and organisation.

Specific workshop information

Planning and preparation

A resource pack will be available to download by 30 June 2021. This will show results of an experiment that the researcher will show, and students can take some measurements from. 

Equipment needed: Ruler (preferably wood, 50cm or longer, but should also work with a plastic ruler at least 30cm long)

Session details

  • Introduction - How does our brain make our body move? Scientists will introduce ideas of electrical signals travelling through the body. Galvani’s experiments with frogs, and the inspiration for the book Frankenstein.
  • Experiment 1 – Tendon tap reflex. Students will be asked to cross their legs and tap themselves below the knee. They will find the spot that makes thier leg move. They can do this on themselves, no interaction or equipment required. Explain that the movement results from an electrical signal going from their knee to the spine and back to the leg.
  • Question – How fast does this signal travel? A) Speed of a bicycle, B) Speed of a car or C) Speed of a formula one racing car?
  • Experiment 2 – Video presentation of experiment being quantified using electrical stimulation of nerve, magnetic stimulation of brain, electric recording from muscle. Using the data, we will calculate how long it takes signals to travel around the body and hence calculate speed.
  • Experiment 3 – Now let’s measure how quickly we can react to sound. This needs two people, in proximity although they don’t need to touch. Person 1 holds the ruler, just above the hand of person 2. Says ‘go’ at the same time as releasing the ruler. Person 2 has to catch the ruler. We measure how far the ruler has travelled and calculate reaction time.
  • Compare this with the time it takes the signal to get from the brain to the muscle – much longer. Explain that this the time taken for the signal to get through the network of brain cells in the brain.
  • Explain how injury to the spinal cord prevents signal getting from the brain to the muscle leading to paralysis. Scientists are developing electronic implants to replace the damaged pathway with an artificial electronic connection. Show videos of people who have had these implants being able to move.
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