Yesterday, researchers and technicians from BrainCo, a tech startup incubated in the Harvard Innovation Lab, met with 10th-grade students and teachers participating in the PACE “Mind-Body Connections” curriculum. Representatives were here to orient students to their wireless EEG headbands, specialized headpieces with sensors designed to measure brain states such as depth of focus, relaxation, and meditation. The headbands will be used throughout the school year as a means of observing and assessing the impacts of mindfulness education in support of CSW’s efforts to measure and improve upon PACE programming. CSW is the first school in the United States that will be using the brain bands in this capacity.
The focus of the grade 10 PACE curriculum is to promote an understanding of mental, physical, and emotional connection, teaching students how to exercise self-care, and in doing so, build a positive self-identity while practicing effective decision-making skills through mindfulness education. The BrainCo headbands will thus serve as an important, hands-on tool for the program, allowing students to use real-time neurofeedback to see how their brain states shift through the use of mindfulness.
During the preliminary visit, Max Newlon, president of BrainCo USA, provided background on BrainCo’s mission and goals. The Somerville-based company — with offices around the world — has used its technology it a number of spheres, with projects in education, cognitive training, fitness, and wellness. In addition to developing Brain Machine Interface (BMI) technology for prosthetics, BrainCo researchers have been working to address the issue of student engagement in the classroom.
“How efficient are you with the time and content you have when it comes to studying?” Max asked students. “You can study longer, but how can you study better? How do you quantify focus?”
With their pioneering Focus 1 headbands, BrainCo has endeavored to do just that: find a way to effectively measure student focus and engagement. The bands work by detecting electrical signals as they make their way from the wearer’s brain to the skin. Super sensitive sensors pick up on those signals, which can indicate how engaged or focused a student is at any given time. At CSW, however, the bands will be used not to measure engagement, but relaxation and meditation.
Before outfitting the students with their bands, Max addressed a number of common questions and concerns about the headbands. He made clear that the Focus 1 headbands cannot read your mind. They also can’t identify anybody — the bands CSW is using, and the info they send, are completely anonymous. And lastly, the bands cannot read or detect emotions.
When it was time to put the headbands into action, five volunteers went to the front of the classroom to try out their new gear. Putting the bands on was easy; it took less than five minutes for all students to be up and running. Each student’s band had an easily visible indicator light on the front, that showed whether or not the band was accurately placed, and, once initiated, the level of focus each student was exhibiting. A red light meant a student was very focused, a green light meant they were more relaxed and disengaged, and yellow meant they were somewhere in the middle.
While the students were wearing their bands, Max projected the company’s FocusEdu software platform on a large screen so that the audience could observe feedback from the headbands in real-time. He then led the class through an interactive game, in which the student volunteers were challenged to bring down their average level of engagement. As the students endeavored to disconnect and relax by closing their eyes and taking deep breaths, a gauge on the screen showed how their average level of focus and stimulation began to decrease. To make things more fun, as the students relaxed, new trees would populate an animated forest scape scene on the screen.
While the students were only able to move the gauge very slightly, the hope is that with time, instruction, and practice, they will eventually be able to more substantially settle their brain activity with increased efficiency and speed. In this way, students will be able to directly quantify the impact of their learning through the course of the “Mind-Body Connections” curriculum. The ultimate goal is for students to develop skills in meditation, relaxation, and other stress-reducing techniques they can use for the rest of their lives.