An interactive turnkey tutorial to give students a feel for brain-style computation

A new version of my 100-minute interactive neural network lesson is available. The lesson webpages guide university-level students through learning and directed play with a connectionist simulator. The outcome is that students gain a sense of how neuron-like processing units can mediate adaptive behavior and memory.

Making the lesson was fairly straightforward, thanks to Simbrain, a connectionist simulator which is the easiest to use of any I’ve seen. After a student downloads the Java-based Simbrain software and double-clicks, she is on her way with menu-driven and point-and-click brain hacking.

New to Simbrain and my lessons this year are animated avatars that depict the movements of the virtual organism controlled by the student’s neural network. This feature, added to the software by Simbrain creator Jeff Yoshimi, provided a nice lift to student engagement compared to previous versions. The first lesson is mainly intended to bring students to understand the basic sum-and-activate functioning of a simplified neuron and how wiring such units together can accomplish various things. It’s couched in terms of a guy chasing girls scenario, so that most university students can relate. The second lesson gives students a rudimentary understanding of pattern learning and retrieval with a Hebbian learning rule.

Going through the lessons is certainly not as fun as playing a video game, but it is more interesting and interactive than a conventional university tutorial. In the long term, I hope we can make it more and more like a (educational) video game. Some say that’s the future of education, and whether or not that’s true in general, I think neural networks and computational neuroscience are ideally suited for it.

Development of the Simbrain codebase has been gathering steam, although that may not be apparent from the Simbrain website because portions of it haven’t been updated for awhile. Lately, a few people have jumped in to help with development.

Already the code is developed enough to provide all the functionality needed for school- and university-level teaching. Giving a series of classes with it could easily be done at this point. However, to do so you’d have to take time to develop associated lecture material and refine the example networks. If you don’t have time for that, you should consider simply using my lessons to give students a taste.

The lessons have been battle-tested on a few hundred psychology students at University of Sydney, without any significant problems. The tutors (aka demonstrators or teaching assistants) took the introductory slides provided and used them to help orient the students before they started following the web-based instructions for the lessons. Contact us if you want to take it further.

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