Sensory Substitution Devices

Modeling & Designing a Sensory Substitution Device

A 4-5 Week STEAM Curriculum Unit for Middle School Science Classes

The nervous system is an integral part of the human body. It receives information from the environment through sensory neurons, processes that information, and results in a response through motor neurons. Communication in neural networks occurs through both electrical and chemical signals. Similarly, electrical circuits can involve sensory input (temperature, pressure, light), processing of the input using logic gates, and a resulting output (light, motor). This parallel of the nervous system and electronic circuits is central to the field of neural engineering. Engineers identify a problem based on a need (in this case, the loss of a sense), design solutions (sensory substitution), test and evaluate their solutions, and modify their solutions. When senses are impaired or not functioning, devices can be designed to aid with sensory substitution.

In this unit, students will explore the integral role of the nervous system in the human body. Students will learn about the basic structure and function of the nervous system, explore the relationship between electrical circuits and the nervous system, and then construct a simple, sensory substitution device with Arduino microprocessors and breadboards, used in aiding individuals with a missing or impaired sense. After building the device, students will test and present a work-in-progress prototype to peers, and then modify the design based on the test results and peer feedback, an essential practice in the field of engineering. Finally, students will explore other perspectives, including the needs of end-users, budget, type of materials, ease of use, maintenance, and accessibility. In this unit, students experience the iterative stages of the engineering design process.

These lessons were developed by Phelana Pang of Seattle Girls School as part of the 2016-2017 CSNE Research Experience for Teachers program and have been pilot-tested with her students over two years.

Download the full PDF here.

Lesson One: Introduction to Neuroscience

Lesson Two: Robot Gripper Hand

Lesson Three: Prosthetic Fingers

Lesson Four: Neural Engineering and Sensory Substitution

Lesson Five: End-Users and Ethics

Lesson Six: Circuits

Lesson Seven: Breadboards

Lesson Eight: Introduction to Arduinos

Lesson Nine: Designing a Sensory Substitution Device

Lesson Ten: Presenting and Evaluating the Design