Getting kids involved in, and invested in, robotics and cybernetics isn't an easy task. That very first step, helping them to realize that hey wow they can actually do it, is a tough one. Backyard Brains has come up with what looks to be a fun (and more importantly cheap) way of bringing robotics, cybernetics, and neurobiology into the classroom, as long as you're not creeped out by bugs.
The Backyard Brains Cockroach Cerebral Enslavement Kit (I made that name up) takes the guts out of a Hexbug (cost: $10), adds a little chip that can generate biophasic pulses, and wires it up to the antennas of a large cockroach. By mimicking the signals that the roach's brain receives when one of its antennas runs into something, the insect can be steered left and right:
For those of you concerned about the well-being of the cockroaches (I know I was!), Backyard Brains has this to say:
The cockroaches only have the backpacks on for a couple minutes. The cockroaches are not killed. They are allowed to retire and make cockroach babies and live out the remainder of their cockroach lives eating organic lettuce and carrots and playing in small wooden jungle gyms.
Phew, I feel better now.
After a little more tweaking (they only have a 25% success rate getting the roaches to respond to the backpack so far), Backyard Brains hopes to package all this into an affordable kit that can be used to provide students with hands-on demos and lessons in robotics and neurobiology. Hopefully, lesson two will involve doing the same type of thing to flying insects, to make fully steerable roboinsectoplanes. You know, like these.