Turning young minds on to brain science
UCLA student Sabrina Yeung puts on a bike helmet decorated to depict the lobes of the brain.
How do you get a classroom of fidgety fourth graders interested in — BOR-ING!!
Bring on the brains.
Bring on softball-size lumps of gray-pink matter that used to be stuck inside somebody’s skull. Set them out on a table; then let the kids poke them and pick them up. Show brain slices with black blobs stretching across sections that were damaged or diseased. Pass around jars of animal brains, including teeny-tiny mouse and snake brains.
Most importantly, bring in brainiacs like UCLA undergrads Erika Morikawa and Sabrina Yeung to teach a lesson as their culminating assignment for Neuroscience 192B. Otherwise known as Project Brainstorm, the combination classroom course and school outreach project takes brain science to K-12 students in disadvantaged, underperforming schools, where the undergrads take the tedium out of science as it’s traditionally taught and infuse the lesson with the thrill of discovery.
Morikawa and Yeung, with assistance from several of their classmates, spent a recent morning with roughly 30 fourth graders at Richland Elementary School. Located about four miles south of Westwood, the school is working hard to bring students’ standardized test scores up to LAUSD benchmarks.
Neuroscience major Erika Morikawa explains how neurons send signals to tell muscles to move.
To illustrate brain anatomy, the neuroscience majors eschewed the drawings in a boring textbook for a bike helmet they had decorated with colorful "brain lobes." They explained how "every part of your brain is assigned a body part" and used posters and fabric cutouts to show how our nervous system’s hundred billion neurons signal muscles to take action. And all the while, they fielded a flurry of curious questions.
"If somebody pokes you in the arm where you get pain and stuff, but the part of your brain to your arm was already removed," one boy asked, "would you feel pain or not?"
"That’s a good question," Yeung responded. "If that part of the brain is removed, then, yeah, you won’t feel. But," she added, "your brain can adapt, can change a little bit, so you could have some sensation."
"Why," asked another boy, "when a ball or something is coming fast at you, does your brain stop and you just stand there and watch it happen and can’t move?"
"Um…" Yeung ventured, "I think it’s because you’re panicked, right? You’re scared. And your brain tries to process this ball coming at you really quickly, trying to make a decision on what to do, and that takes a little bit of time."
A Project Brainstorm student passes around the brain of a dog.
Project Brainstorm is offered twice a year to neuroscience juniors and seniors as a valuable opportunity to learn how to present difficult scientific concepts to K-12 students who may know little or nothing about the brain.
"This experience is very fun and rewarding for our undergraduates, since they interact with young students who are eager to learn from them," said Project Brainstorm’s teaching assistant Martina DeSalvo.
Now in its sixth year, Project Brainstorm has been completed by more than 100 neuroscience undergraduates who have taught more than 2,000 students at 65-plus L.A. schools. Recently featured in the journal Public Library of Science (PLoSBiology)
, the program also helps UCLA students hone their skills as scientists, said Professors Joseph Watson and Cristina Ghiani of the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences,
who co-instruct the class.
"There is a lot of team effort. They learn to help one another and be critical of their own and others’ work," said Watson, vice chair of the Neuroscience Undergraduate Interdepartmental Program and associate director for outreach for the Brain Research Institute. He was recently named associate dean in the Graduate Division.
A close look at the tiny brains of mice, snakes and other small creatures.
Project Brainstorm also has potential for stimulating students’ interest in pursuing an advanced degree and maybe even a teaching career.
"They learn," said Ghiani, "that neuroscience can be fun, and so can teaching it."
That’s just what Professor Rafael Romero of the Department of Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology had in mind when he created Project Brainstorm. "Teaching never occurred to me as a career option, and I never thought I would be good at it. If you had asked me in high school if I would ever be teaching anything, I would have said you’re crazy."
It wasn’t until he was a graduate student, he said, that "I realized it’s fun, and I like it. And I think it’s valuable."
In 2006, when he was a neuroscience postdoc working with UCLA’s Center for Community Learning to connect science departments with student internships, Romero hit on the idea of sending neuroscience undergraduates into K-12 schools to promote interest in science through thought-provoking teaching and hands-on learning experiences. He developed Project Brainstorm in collaboration with neuroscience graduate student Elizabeth O’Hare, who had been informally taking graduate student volunteers into a few local schools to talk about the brain. Together, they fleshed out the groundwork for what would become a full-fledged neuroscience course.
Students eagerly wait their turns to touch a human brain.
The teaching challenge, many students discover, is more difficult than they thought it would be.
"They learn that you can only teach effectively if you really understand the material," said Romero. "As neuroscience undergraduates, a lot of them think they know stuff about the brain, but then when you ask them to explain it to a 5th grader, all of a sudden they realize, ‘I guess I didn’t know it as well as I thought, because I can’t explain it.’"
Morikawa agreed: "I loved that we were able to share topics that we find interesting from our neuroscience classes with younger students. But in preparing our presentations, we had to go back and review some material and do further research, as we knew that we would be held accountable by our curious audience."
But by the time students complete the class, they have honed their skills in voice projection, poise and audience engagement. They’ve written and rewritten, practiced and refined their presentations, and then performed a "dress rehearsal" before the class, mentors and faculty.
By the time they deliver their lessons, they may very well have inspired some of those fourth graders to think differently about science, Romero said, "opening their eyes and saying, ‘Oh! This
is why people study brain science.’"
"Our hope," Romero said, "is that kids will go home and tell their parents, ‘You know, today I poked a brain … and it was real exciting!’"
Learn more about Project Brainstorm and other Brain Research Institute outreach programs at this website.