“What has a brain?” asked Patti Murphy, a doctoral student in the lab of Michael Granato, PhD, a professor of Cell and Development Biology. “Sharks!” “Humans!” “Dinosaurs had really little brains!” came the enthusiastic replies from the first-graders in Leonor Jimenez’s science classroom at Independence Charter School, a Philadelphia school known for its cultural diversity, advanced curriculum, including science at early grade levels, and dedicated teachers and parent volunteers.
This is the second year that grad students in the Penn Neuroscience Graduate Group (NGG) conducted a two-day neuroscience outreach program for elementary school students in Philadelphia. NGG is an active group at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine that gives grad students an opportunity to get out of the lab and share their love of science. They hold public lectures – this year’s on the aging brain was standing room only -- open days at neuroscience labs, exhibitions about the brain, and displays at libraries, community centers, science museums, and the Philadelphia Science Festival.
Seeing an unfilled niche for teaching about the brain, a group led by Maria Neimark Geffen, PhD
, an assistant professor in the department of Otorhinolaryngology and Head and Neck Surgery and the department of Neuroscience, organized a hands-on neuroscience lesson for students in early grade school. They shared their lesson with the school where Geffen’s son is now in second grade and daughter in kindergarten. (See below for a slide show of the class.)
This past Thursday when I visited, the team taught the “Build-A-Brain” lesson, which focuses on the specialized functions of different brain regions. Murphy, joined by fellow doctoral students Kait Folweiler (Akiva Cohen’s lab), Hannah Shoenhard (Granato lab), Carolyn Keating (Kacy Cullen’s lab), and Trish Parthasarathi (Joe Kable’s lab), introduced the group to the 20 or so budding scientists: “We are students just like you, and we love learning about a very special part of the body… the brain!”
The NGG students staffed five stations, and the students all had their own map to follow -- an outline of the brain with labeled areas to be filled in with specific colors for the different regions (and to match colors of regions in a Play-Doh-filled 3-D brain model later).
Each station focused on a specific brain region on the map, as well as an activity to illustrate brain function or sense.
For movement and balance, the kids did jumping jacks, spun around, and hopped on one foot.
Next for hearing, they listened to instrument sound clips on a tablet to identify the sounds of drums, violin, guitar, or piano.
For touch, a bag of craft beads was placed in a box with a hole for the kids to access the objects inside but only by touch. They then whispered their guess to Shoenhard. The children did an exemplary job at not blurting out the answer.
For smell and taste, the students were each given a jelly bean of the same color, but weren’t allowed to look at them. They then held their nose and chewed the jelly bean to see if they could figure out what they tasted corresponded to the color of available jelly beans. Then let they let go of their nose to see if they correctly identified the flavor. This exercise helped to convey how important smell is for taste.
“Most kids were able to identify that there was a difference in flavor when holding their nose and letting go, but some kids were still able to taste the jelly bean both times,” says Parthasarathi. “They were also very excited to get an opportunity to eat jelly beans in general.”
The last station on vision used optical illusions shown on a laptop to show how we use our brains to see. “What if I told you that your brain could trick you into seeing things that aren’t real, even though your eyes are working perfectly?” asked Murphy. The kids understood the concept, but it was hard to get the full effect of the illusion. Believe me, I tried too!
To bring it all together, the students matched their two-dimensional paper map with colored Play-Doh, which they used to fill the three-dimensional brain mold.
It wasn’t only the first graders who left with a new appreciation of science and their brain.
I asked the grad students why they spend time on science education outreach activities, in addition to a rigorous lab and experiment schedule. They all agreed that the main draw in teaching younger kids is the more immediate gratification and tangible outcome of their efforts, compared to waiting weeks or longer for the results of a lab experiment.
And from some of the conversations I overheard, I think the connection on a personal level was just as gratifying: I heard one of the students ask Folweiler, “Are you a scientist?” “I’m a scientist in training, which means I’m still in school, just like you,” she replied, with a knowing smile.
Image credit: Daniel Burke Photos & Video