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Award Detail

Doing Business As Name:NeuroTinker, LLC
  • Joseph R Burdo
  • (774) 232-7174
Award Date:12/17/2015
Estimated Total Award Amount: $ 150,000
Funds Obligated to Date: $ 150,000
  • FY 2016=$150,000
Start Date:01/01/2016
End Date:06/30/2016
Transaction Type:Grant
Awarding Agency Code:4900
Funding Agency Code:4900
CFDA Number:47.041
Primary Program Source:040100 NSF RESEARCH & RELATED ACTIVIT
Award Title or Description:SBIR Phase I: Development of a STEM Educational Platform Using Electronic Neuron Simulators
Federal Award ID Number:1548734
DUNS ID:079792286
Program Officer:
  • Glenn H. Larsen
  • (703) 292-4607

Awardee Location

Street:2624 Pierce Street NE
Awardee Cong. District:05

Primary Place of Performance

Organization Name:NeuroTinker, LLC
Street:2624 Pierce St NE
Cong. District:05

Abstract at Time of Award

This SBIR Phase I project seeks to develop, manufacture, and evaluate a novel nervous system simulation platform consisting of freely connectable electronic neuron modules. These devices will be used in the post-secondary classroom to further students conceptual grasp of neuroscience and physiology, and to generate lasting enthusiasm for a career path centered on the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) sector. Per a 2012 study by the Department of Education, undergraduate STEM major retention rates are only 35% from initial declaration through graduation. Studies have shown that unengaging introductions to STEM are partially to blame. We believe that our product's positive effect on new knowledge formation and student enthusiasm for STEM has the ability to increase this low retention. We also believe that our company will grow at a similar rate to our benchmark companies in STEM and neuroscience education which, after approximately five years in business, each have several dozen employees and aggregate sales greater than $1 million dollars. Our Phase I proposal involves undergraduate student construction of neural networks, including a patellar tendon (knee-jerk) reflex using our neuron simulators, and evaluation of student learning and interest in STEM gains resulting from that construction. At the heart of our neuron simulator is an Atmel 8-bit AVR RISC-based microcontroller. LEDs integrated into the circuit board provide feedback about the virtual "membrane voltage" level. Similar to real neurons, individual simulators are connected together through axon outputs and excitatory or inhibitory dendritic connectors integrated into each board. The flexibility of the simulator connection pattern can lead to numerous nerve network possibilities, supporting our belief that our neuron simulators are connector toys for the nervous system.

Project Outcomes Report


This Project Outcomes Report for the General Public is displayed verbatim as submitted by the Principal Investigator (PI) for this award. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this Report are those of the PI and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation; NSF has not approved or endorsed its content.

During Phase I of our project, we developed hardware based electronic neuron simulators called NeuroBytes that can be used by students to learn about physiology and the nervous system while building their own neural circuits. Analogous to the real nervous system, NeuroBytes can sense the environment via input devices such as microphones, light sensors, and mechanical switches, and produce output through devices such as servo motors. They also have embedded RGB LEDs that allow the user to understand how active the simulators are based upon the color of the light. Our NeuroBytes are based on a common microcontroller platform, making them ideal for use by makers and tinkerers of all ages. While virtual simulations of the nervous system currently exist, educational studies have shown that hands-on learning like the type involved in constructing NeuroBytes based neural circuits is superior for developing long-term student interest and learning gains in and out of the classroom. These interest and learning gains are critical, because even though the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology has called for 1 million additional college STEM graduates by 2022 to fill STEM career roles, undergraduate STEM major retention rates are only 35% from initial declaration through graduation, largely due to the lack of an engaging classroom experience. We believe that our fun and educational NeuroBytes technology has the potential to engage students at all educational levels.

In addition to development of the NeuroBytes simulators, during Phase I we constructed a patellar tendon (knee-jerk) reflex from 3D printed leg and foot bones, servo motors to simulate the quadriceps and hamstrings muscles, and a mechanical switch to simulate the patellar tendon. When a student taps the switch with a mock patellar tendon hammer, a signal is processed by four NeuroBytes that serve the roles of the four neurons in the physiological knee jerk reflex. The NeuroBytes processing of this signal results in rotation of the servo motors, and a kick by the 3D printed leg, just like when a physician tests your reflexes during a physical exam. During the real exam the underlying mechanism that produces the leg kick is hidden; our NeuroBytes-based reflex fleshes out that mechanism as students build it from scratch.

To determine if student construction of the NeuroBytes-based knee jerk reflex is beneficial to the learning experience, we tested it in a first-year undergraduate anatomy and physiology lab course. Our experimental groups used NeuroBytes to build this reflex, while our control groups tested the physiological reflex on each other and inspected diagrams of how the reflex works. We found that on several of the test questions asked of our control and experimental group students both before and after (i.e., pre-post test) the reflex labs, the students who used NeuroBytes had a greater increase in their pre-post test scores as a group than did the students who did not use NeuroBytes in their lab. We believe that these learning gains and the great interest in our technology shown by educators and students alike demonstrate a real opportunity to revolutionize the way that physiology-based STEM topics are taught in the classroom, and are excited to continue developing NeuroBytes during Phase II of our project.



Last Modified: 07/01/2016
Modified by: Joseph R Burdo

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