A hacked Star Wars Force Trainer is now in use as an EEG Brain Wave detector in my classroom!

A hacked Star Wars Force Trainer is now in use as an EEG Brain Wave detector in my classroom!

Thanks to some industrious students and a department chair who is willing to spend department funds on Star Wars EEG toys I can now teach about brain waves in a much more hands-on way. The force trainer can be hacked using an Arduino micro controller and these directions. The readout ends up showing real-time bar graphs of the amounts of high and low Alpha, high and low Beta, Delta and theta waves of the brain’s electrical activity. I think I’m going to use it to find some event related potentials.

Thanks to Jacob Donahue, Ifeanyi Ozobu, Nathan Jones, Seth Jenkins and Aaron Johnson for working on making this happen.


Lemon Powder Day

Lemon Powder Day

An interactive classical conditioning lesson.

I few years ago I’d caught wind that you could potentially use lemonade powder to teach kids classical conditioning in a psychology class. So I tried it out in my psychology class. Here is the rundown of my Lemon Powder day lesson as it currently stands after several years of pedagogical fine-tuning.

Upon first hearing said rumor my mind went straight to the ins-and-outs of it all. Sure, the lemon powder is an unconditioned stimulus. But what would be the neutral stimulus? And how long would acquisition take? And is it legal to give kids that much sugar? Not to mention all those other lemoney chemicals. Lemonichals if you will. What unconditioned responses might this concoction cause?

It turns out that the typical teenage human will respond to lemonade powder by becoming involuntarily and excessively slobbery. And if you have them pair these shots of lemonade powder with a nonsense word, then eventually that word will make them involuntarily slobbery. But how long will this take?

I went to the internet and found somewhere (can’t find the source) that about 25-35 minutes of classical conditioning seems some sort of threshold. So I settled on that.

Now, what to do during that 25-35 minutes?

I’ve talked with some teachers who say that they simple give the standard class on classical conditioning while randomly inserting a word. Some say “Pavlov” dozens of times through the lecture. Others use common words like “um” or “the.” I chose to make it a random word, that they choose. I ask them for a two syllable random word. Kid’s first say something like “chocolate.” I say “that’s too long and not very random… I’m talking random nonsense syllables.” After a while someone says something like “How about Zoogoo!” I say “Great, here we go. Whenever I say Zoogoo you quickly dip your finger into the lemonade powder and put it on your tongue.”

For the record, the materials needed for this shin-dig are a class set of paper bathroom cups (like the ones from the dentist) which are roughly 1/4 full of countrytime-ish lemon powder. If a kid runs out, they are clearly slipping a little action on the side if you know what I mean?

So I decided that I wanted to tell a goofy story for those 25-35 minutes using a nonsense word chosen by the students. I’d draw crazy stick figure cartoons on the smartboard while I told the story. Drawing the cartoons slows the story down to a good pace and pulls out a lot of good peanut-gallery interaction from the students. What to say? During my first four years doing this I just spun a yarn. Winged it. Improv. Went from ninjas to pirates spaceships to snake-armed-gorillas and shotguns that shoot out more shotguns that shoot out more shotguns aimed at aliens and dragons and beasts of all varieties. All while talking about a main character named Zoogoo or what-have-you. Also I’d typically get my material by asking kids. For examples. I’d say “so Zoogoo is being chased by a… a…” and the kids start saying, “Gorilla” and “snake” and “unicorn.” So I’d say “Ok… So he’s being chased by a Gorilla with snakes for arms who’s riding a unicorn.” This kind of thing goes over well and really gets all the kids interested while passing the necessary time for the conditioning to take hold.

BUT is it educational?

The answer is, not really. So, this year I decided to make the story about a series of classical conditioning legends that I have picked up here and there at Psychology PD sessions. I have only recently found out that some of these stories aren’t actually true. These stories allow you to talk entertainingly about the content (not zombie ninjas) for at least 20 minutes while the kids dose themselves with the UCS as you intentionally use the main character’s name every 30 or seconds or so. Of course the argument against this is that the students are voluntarily dosing. Try to downplay that. It is actually a combo of classical and operant. Cover all that later when they will understand that distinction. Anyway, Zoogoo is the main character for all of classical conditioning legends/stories that you can weave all together.

What are these classical conditioning stories?

Story one. Proven false but proven legend. Keep in mind I’m drawing through all of this. ”

is an eleventh grade boy who likes to play football. He really has his mind set on it and practices every day. But one day the coach calls him in. And tells him, ‘you are a terrible football player zoogoo.’ ‘What kind of name is that anyway?’ ‘That’s why I’m gonna have to cut you from the team. Bwahahaha.’ Oh no! zoogoo is very angry and wants to get revenge. So he goes out to the football field during the evenings through the next summer before football season starts. Zoogoo knows a thing or two about classical conditioning. He had a high school psychology class and learned about Pavlov. He goes out on the football field alone with a whistle and a bag of birdseed. Every day, Zoogoo decides to blow the whistle around 7:00 pm while throwing birdseed all over the football field. Eventually flocks and flocks of birds come.” As a side-note I say “Zoogoo perceives them as a flock because of the law of common-fate.” A shameless plug for some other content. Anyway he does this for two months and then on the opening game kickoff… Who is it that blows whistle then?” They yell “Oh man! The ref!” I say “And what happens?” They say “The birds come in … holy crap!” Right. Zoogoo is so proud of himself. At this point I go through a Q&A back and forth; asking them to identify the NS, UCS, UCR, CS and CR. Good times.

Story two. The gist of both story one and two I heard from Alan Feldman. “Zoogoo somehow then becomes a russian baron in Pre-Soviet Russia. And he’s gotten a bit full of himself. Zoogoo is having an affair with his mistress whose name is…” They yell “Broomhilda.” I say “yes.” “Broomhilda… but we all know… Broomhilda she gets around. She’s actually having affairs with all of the men in upper Russian society. Zoogoo finds out about this and is furious. He wants revenge. He decides that he is going to use classical conditioning again. So every-time Zoogoo and Broomhilda are… you know, having the sex, he pulls down on her ear right at the peak moment, the orgasm.” This tests out some kids’ maturity while making others blush. Regardless it keeps their full attention. “Zoogoo does this again and again and again. Eventually she associated the earlobe pull with the orgasm. Then they go to a ball, Zoogoo and her. A real upper class social event. Broomhilda and Zoogoo are hobnobbing these high class people when Zoogoo takes his revenge. Right as Broomhilda is speaking with a crowd of nice old ladies he reaches up and pulls her earlobe. This sends her into a sudden and spontaneous orgasm and embarrasses her for life.” Once the giggling subsides I ask “What is the NS?” and so forth. Chronicling every piece.

Story three. An adaptation of little albert. “Later on… Zoogoo actually changes his name to John Watson and starts doing experiments on involuntary behavior. He is cool with us still calling him Zoogoo though, which was just his childhood nickname. He sets up an experiment with a child… a gong… a hammer… and a rat.” Drawing really helps here. “The child is named little Albert. Zoogoo releases the rat and little albert wants to play with it. But every time little Albert touches it Zoogoo hits the gong with the hammer! He scares they heck out of little Albert. He does this over several weeks and eventually little Albert screams bloody murder when he sees the rat.” Then I the students to identify the NS, UCS, UCR and so forth. After this I tell them about the white furry objects and how little Albert had stimulus generalization with those things. I emphasize that this is a real experiment and give the details.

And if I have time from here I go back through the other stories while asking the students “If the birds from the football field had stimulus generalization how would that have worked out? and “What if they had stimulus discrimination?”

Usually the time is about up.

At this point I ask the students to pass up their cups. They do. I throw them away visibly and theatrically. Then I ask them what the NS, UCS, UCR, CS and CR were for this whole demonstration. Pausing specifically now on the CS, saying “Zoogoo.” And asking them “what does that make your mouth do?”

My talk at Ignite Baltimore 2013

My talk at Ignite Baltimore 2013

I gave a talk at Ignite Baltimore and spoke about this game I made where students can deprive each other of the shared benefits of cooperation by competing for self benefit only. If students choose to cooperate everyone in class gets a piece of candy. However, if a few choose to compete they get 2 pieces of candy while everyone else gets none. Watch it to see how it unfolds.

Phineas Gage (LEGO Stop-Motion Music Video)

Phineas Gage (LEGO Stop-Motion Music Video)

My students and I put together this stop motion animation of the famous case of Phineas Gage, who suffered a horrible brain injury while working on the railroad back in the 1800s. His case has been studied by Psychologists, Doctors and Railroad workmen’s insurers ever since. We used the following as our sources.

Macmillan, M. (2002). An odd kind of fame: Stories of Phineas Gage. MIT Press.


Harlow, J. M. (1999). Passage of an iron rod through the head. 1848. Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 11(2), 281-283.

as well as…

Harlow, J. M. (1869). Recovery from the passage of an iron bar through the head. D. Clapp.

We made the song and video with the following programs…
Protools for the song
iStopMotion for the animation
iMovie for the rest

Here it is: