Five high-school students experienced a unique fusion of electrical engineering and biological science with the help of a few critters. For the month of June 2012, assistant professor, Jennifer Blain Christen of the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering at Arizona State University hosted a Summer Engineering Research Experience featuring the nervous system of cockroaches.

Many students don’t really know what engineering is, but engineering is everywhere.—Jennifer Blain Christen

“We had a lot of fun,” says Blain Christen, “It was a good lesson in teamwork to learn to work together and come up with one solution.” The program required the students to think critically and assess the best way to perform multiple experiments on the electrical impulses received and sent from a cockroach’s brain.

“We were trying to look at how the cells in the brain work,” explains Christen. Similar to humans, the brains of cockroaches send and receive signals in response to stimuli throughout the body. The first experiment was to familiarize the students with the electrical signals in the body and to make this concept tangible.

This was achieved by having the students build a circuit from which the electrical impulses of a cockroach leg can be measured, producing an audible response through speakers. The circuit was part of a package specifically designed for this experiment called the Backyard Brains Kit. The specific kit used, called the SpikerBox, came disassembled for the students to build.

By amputating one of the cockroach legs and pinning it to the circuit, the students could measure the variation of electrical stimulation that the receptors in the leg give off between blowing air and applying pressure with a pencil.

Once the students understood the concept of the brain receiving electrical impulses from the body, Blain Christen introduced a new lesson into the experiments. Using music with a heavy bass beat, the students were able to stimulate the muscles in the cockroach leg and watch it move to the beat of the songs.

“In music, the signal for the bass is really strong,” explains Blain Christen. The bass replaced the electrical impulses produced by the brain to control the muscles. She says, “There are good reasons for trying to understand this science and how this signaling works.”

One useful application is in prosthetic limbs. Advanced technology in false limbs use simple electric signals but do not allow a person to “feel” the action. Research in this field aims to create prosthetics that imitate physiology as closely as possible; making an artificial limb mimic precisely the function of the missing limb.

Another experiment inserted a fine wire into the severed end of a cockroach’s antenna. This wire attached to a small device called the “backpack” that was glued to the back of the cockroach. Using a modified remote control from a HEXBUG toy, Blain Christen and the students were able to send electrical impulses into the antenna wire, guiding the cockroach to move in certain directions.

“They were really good students – they got a lot of the concepts really quickly,” she says. The Summer Engineering Research Experience is meant to introduce young students to engineering as they are preparing to decide a field to pursue in college.

“Many students don’t really know what engineering is,” admits Blain Christen, “But engineering is everywhere.” The five students that participated in the program were juniors and seniors at Fountain Hills, Westview, Mountain View and Corona Del Sol high schools.

Blain Christen teaches a low-power bioelectronics course where her students examine the electrical signals of the human brain, and she struggles with trying to make the lessons into something tangible for her students.

“Its very abstract, so every year I try to include more things that bring it to reality,” she explains. Hands-on activities, interactive lessons and guest presentations are a few of her strategies, but the cockroach program is a future candidate given its fun nature and opportunity for more complex graduate components.

“This is something that can really bridge the disciplines,” says Blain Christen. She had assistance during the summer program from a visiting professor, Dixie Kullman, from Central Arizona College. Her focus is physiology and she spent the summer at ASU through the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network Research Experience for Teachers program sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

Kullman explained, “She inspired me! I am going to take this program back to my 100 and 200 level students.” The biological aspect of the experiment makes this program a great resource for students of all levels in multiple fields of study.