Engagement in Marine Neurobiology, Electrophysiology, and Microscopy


Lydia Naughton, University of North Carolina Wilmington, participated in the MBL Neurobiology course


Neurobiology is a valuable subject to learn because it explains how our bodies are able to process information and perform everyday tasks. In most K-12 schools, neurobiology is not regularly taught, in part due to the complexity of the topic and the technology needed to have hands-on engagement.

Oftentimes, students are only exposed to neurobiology if they take science courses in higher education, which leaves a significant knowledge gap in people’s understanding of how the nervous system works. This situation disproportionally affects minority groups since they are underrepresented in higher education, resulting in a lack of access to this information.

In order for neurobiology to reach more people, it needs to be made more accessible. Organizations such as Backyard Brains have greatly contributed to this effort by designing low-cost teaching tools and corresponding experiments that demonstrate various principles of neurobiology. Through hands-on experiments and demonstrations with school students, we can increase public knowledge of neurobiology and inspire excitement for science early in life.


The primary goal of this project was to expose young people to topics and technology in neurobiology that they might not otherwise have access to. We created two lesson plans to introduce students to 1) the electrical properties of neurons through electrophysiology and 2) the structure of nervous tissue through microscopy and histology.

Group picture of Cape Fear Middle School students and UNCW graduate students.
Group picture of Cape Fear Middle School students and UNCW graduate students.

We focused our outreach efforts on middle-schoolers in Pender County, which is the neighboring county to UNCW that has a long history of generational poverty. Working with a local chapter of the non-profit organization Communities in Schools (CIS), we chose to partner with the after-school program at Cape Fear Middle School because we felt that our activities would have the greatest impact on their diversity of students (Figure 1). We hoped to engage these students in neurobiology by experimenting with STEM tools, such as Neuron Spiker Boxes and camera-enabled microscopes.

This project was inspired by my previous outreach experiences and my time in the Neurobiology course at the MBL. I realized my passion for neurobiology when I watched a demonstration of electrophysiology as an incoming undergraduate student. Before seeing and hearing neural activity in action for the first time, I had never experienced such tangible engagement with neuroscience. I was beyond excited to share this experience during my first outreach event where we used Neuron Spiker Boxes from Backyard Brains to show the electrical activity of cockroach legs to elementary school students. During the Neurobiology course at MBL, I valued the institution’s emphasis on marine biology and neurobiology research in addition to its suite of cutting-edge equipment such as electrophysiology rigs and high-resolution microscopes. For this outreach project, I wanted to bring this essence of the MBL to my local community by demonstrating principles of neurobiology to young students through the use of accessible technology.

Project Summary

I worked with a group of UNCW graduate students in the Community Engagement in STEM class to develop two lesson plans. We then visited the CIS after-school program at Cape Fear Middle School for two days to lead the students through the activities. This two-day learning opportunity focused on the use of electrophysiology to measure electrical activity of the nervous system on the first day, followed by the use of microscopes and histological stains to visualize small-scale biological materials on the second day.

Day 1: Electrophysiology

On March 20th, we conducted experiments with the Cape Fear Middle School students using Neuron Spiker Box kits from Backyard Brains. We began the activity with a discussion of the function of the nervous system, the electrical properties of neurons (e.g., action potentials), and the use of electrophysiology to measure electrical activity of excitable cells. We then broke the students into small groups to conduct a series of experiments.

  1. Recording electrical activity

Students were given fiddler crabs, and they performed a mini surgery to remove one leg from their crab. The crabs were placed in cups of ice to anaesthetize them, and one leg was gently pulled off from the carapace. During this process, we discussed the ethics of animal use in science and the reason why fiddler crabs are a good model species for this activity (Figure 2).

Fiddler crabs worked well for this activity because they are well- adapted to lose legs.
Fiddler crabs worked well for this activity because they are well- adapted to lose legs. They often drop their limbs as a defense mechanism.

Once the surgery was complete, students inserted electrodes into the crab leg and recorded spontaneous electrical activity. They then used a toothpick to poke the leg to see how the electrical activity changed in response to a touch stimulus. This showed that the nervous system encodes sensory information by changing the firing rate of action potentials (Figure 3).

Students poke the fiddler crab leg and observe an increase in electrical activity.
Students poke the fiddler crab leg and observe an increase in electrical activity.
  1. Stimulating the leg

Students next introduced electricity into the system by stimulating the leg with an electric current. Students hooked up a stimulation cable to the electrodes and delivered a current to the leg by playing music through a phone. The leg twitched, or “danced”, to the beat of the music. This activity demonstrated the effect of electrical input on motor control (Figure 4).

Students watch intently as the crab leg dances to the music.
Students watch intently as the crab leg dances to the music.
  1. Recording electrical activity again after stimulation

Students then returned to the original recording configuration and observed the electrical activity of the leg after stimulation. If we stimulated long enough, we saw fewer action potentials because the leg used up all of its energy to produce the muscle contractions.

The students got to take home a laminated copy of a neurobiology infographic that I made for this lesson.

Day 2: Microscopy and Histology

On March 27th, we returned to the after-school program at Cape Fear Middle to examine structures of the nervous system using microscopes and histological stains. We began the lesson with a discussion of how microscopes work followed by an egg-dying demonstration to show that we can use stains to reveal the structure of transparent biological tissue. We then split the students into groups to complete two activities.

  1. Microscope “search and find” activity

Students rotated between microscope stations, each of which had slides for a different type of neural tissue.

Tissue types included salmon brain, nerve fibers, spinal cord, cerebellum, and cerebral cortex. Students used diagrams and guiding questions to orient themselves and find the important structures in the real tissue samples (Figure 5).

Outreach volunteers help students use the camera-enabled microscopes for the “search and find” activity.
Outreach volunteers help students use the camera-enabled microscopes for the “search and find” activity.
  1. Comparative brain activity

Students then examined images of brains from different animals to learn how the structure of brains can correlate to the adapted behaviors/functions of animals.

The students got to take home one of their own micrographs printed on photo paper.


Before the activities, none of the students knew about electrophysiology, and less than one third of them had ever used a microscope before. These hands-on activities with the Neuron Spiker Boxes and microscopes gave the students an opportunity to engage with neurobiology and scientific tools in a new way. For the electrophysiology day, the students excitedly tested various poking methods and suggested different songs in an attempt to elicit the strongest neural and motor responses. For the microscopy day, not many students were familiar with structures of the nervous system, so they were surprised to see such a diversity of nerve tissue samples. The students were also very eager to take home their own micrographs, even waiting past the official end time for their pictures to finish printing.

Upon completion of the outreach activities, I donated the Neuron Spiker Boxes and a camera-enabled microscope to the Technology Loan Program at the UNCW Center for Education in STEM (CESTEM). This equipment will be available for local educators to borrow for their classes or other educational events (Figure 6).

Equipment that I donated to the CESTEM Technology Loan Program.


This outreach project directly impacted 16 diverse students from a Title I (i.e., low-income) school. It was important to me that this project was not just a one-time visit, but a stepping stone to a long-term relationship. We visited the same group of students twice, and I hope to return with members of my doctoral lab for future outreach activities that engage students in comparative neurobiology.

This project will have continued impacts on the community. This summer, I will be hosting a session at the Regional STEM Education Conference to demonstrate these lesson plans, empowering educators to implement them in their own classrooms. I have also started making a tutorial video with the help of the Technology Loan Program coordinator, which I hope will further facilitate the use of this equipment.

View lesson plan here.