A young girl at last year’s Amazing Brain Carnival listening intently to psychology graduate student Justin Cox’s instructions on the proper way to touch a real human brain, an experience she is unlikely to forget, no matter what she grows up to be.
One thing about neuroscience: there’s no question but that it’s relevant to your life. “What you think, what you do, how athletic you are, how academic you are, it’s all down to your nervous system,” says Erik Herzog, PhD, a neuroscientist in the Department of Biology at Washington University in St. Louis.
At last year’s Amazing Brain Carnival, a free event introducing the public to brain science research, the WUSTL exhibit space at the St. Louis Science Center was divided into rooms like a little house. A WUSTL student studying sleep and daily rhythms was in the “bedroom,” and one studying the sense of smell and taste was in the “kitchen.” The students welcomed visitors into the rooms and explained their research and how it relates to daily life, Herzog says.
That relevance makes brain science, or neuroscience, an ideal way to hook kids on science, even — or especially — those kids who statistically are unlikely to be interested in science, technology or math.
WUSTL students involved in the outreach program are enrolled in the Cognitive, Computational and Systems Neuroscience (CCSN) Curriculum Pathway. CCSN is for graduate students in psychology, neuroscience and biomedical engineering.
The Festival of Science and NeuroDay
Herzog has served as president of the St. Louis chapter of the Society for Neuroscience for the past six years. As part of his efforts, he has worked with CCSN students to create a set of novel outreach activities for the community. Activity development has been student-driven, he is quick to add, and his role has been as a facilitator — although it is clear science outreach is very important to him.
The students designed the Amazing Brain Carnival, or ABC, Herzog says. Each year, ABC premieres in October or November at the St. Louis Science Center as part of the Festival of Science. (This year, the festival is from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 10.)
In their room at the Science Center, students set up hands-on activities that are related to research.
One exhibitor, for example, hands visitors Jelly Bellies, instructs them to plug their noses and pop the Jelly Bellies in their mouths.
“You can’t taste anything,” Herzog says. “You just get texture, a bunch of sugar. ”
Then they’re told to unplug their noses and instantly their eyes light up and they say, ‘Wow, it’s lime,’ or ‘Wow, it’s cherry.’ Once the exhibit demonstrates that we integrate different senses to understand our environment, the exhibitor shows visitors on a model brain the neural circuits that make that happen.
“We do it again in March,” Herzog says, “at an event called NeuroDay where we take over the whole Science Center and invite in neuroscientists from other St. Louis universities.”
Talking about science
Psychology graduate student and CCSN outreach student facilitator Melanie Bauer engaging visitors at the Amazing Brain Carnival last year. Her exhibit was the Corsi block task: kids watched her touch a sequence of blocks in the arrays in front of her and then had to touch the same blocks in the same sequence. The task measured working memory, which has limited capacity, and distinguished it from long-term memory, which has much greater capacity. Bauer then brought that concept back to neuroscience by talking about H.M., a famous patient who, after surgery to treat intractable epilepsy, had normal short-term memory but could not form new long-term memories.
“Part of the purpose of the carnival is to help the students with their communication skills as scientists,” Herzog says. The Science Center provides a workshop on talking to the public. The students go to the center and watch professionals at work, and they practice their exhibits with local teens before they get out in front of the public formally.
“The Science Center has done a really nice job helping us understand how to capture and keep the public’s attention,” he says. “Understanding your audience is the first step. Our students are told to think of the audience as a typical 10-year-old with an attention span of about four minutes.”
The exhibit is actually more sophisticated than that implies, however. When visitors enter the room they are given a brain map and encouraged to get stickers at each landmark on the map, which moves them through brain science all the way from the cellular level to the behavioral level.
The experience can be transformative for the graduate students. Some of them actually have modified their theses topics because of the outreach work, Herzog says. They see what interests people or they discover questions that seem more compelling in talking about their exhibits.
“It’s the neatest experience,” says Melanie Bauer, a third-year psychology graduate student who last year took over as the student facilitator for CCSN outreach. “In fact, I’m probably going to be doing my dissertation research on informal science communication, evaluating this program to see how effective it is.”
But the main goal of outreach is to engage kids with science. Herzog gives five motivators he uses to recruit WUSTL students for public outreach. One is that the United States ranks 27th in the world in the number of students receiving bachelor’s degrees in the sciences, engineering and math.
Another is the state of the St. Louis public schools. Ninety percent of the students in those schools, which were unaccredited from 2007 until this fall, have science skills rated basic or below basic on national tests.
It turns out that informal science is the most effective way to get people interested in science, Herzog says. When asked, people often say it was Bill Nye, the Science Guy, or Mythbusters that first piqued their interest.
Jeffrey Gamble, a second-year graduate student in biomedical engineering studying brain plasticity who will be exhibiting at the carnival this year, admits he watched Bill Nye as a kid.
“All the kids who come to our exhibits leave with information about how they can get paid to do summer research at Washington University and elsewhere in St. Louis,” Herzog says. “For example, we give pamphlets about Washington University’s Young Scientist Program to any kid who’s interested, because you never know where that pamphlet is going to go.”
YES teens and the St. Louis Brain Bee
The ABC students also go to the Science Center on Saturdays to meet with a group of teenagers called YES teens, a group of low-income St. Louis kids dedicated to going to college.
Roughly 40 of the 250 YES teens (YES stands for Youth Exploring Science) are in the neuroscience group, and the ABC students help them prepare for a competition called the Brain Bee that is held in February. The St. Louis Brain Bee winner goes on to a national brain bee and the winner of the national bee goes to an international bee.
“We’ve been helping with YES teens for three years,” Herzog says. “Two years ago, our local winner took ninth at the national bee and won the national spelling bee. As she prepares her college applications, she says she wants to study neuroscience. Last year, our local winner did well in the national competition and then matriculated at Princeton. So we feel we’ve been able to give these kids a valuable experience that shapes their lives,” he says.
The ABC students show their brain carnival exhibits to the YES teens and the teens give them feedback about what works and what doesn’t work. That helps the ABC students, Herzog says, but it also empowers the YES teens because they understand what’s going on, and they can give our students useful feedback.
Gamble has yet to take his exhibit out for a spin, but says he has enjoyed working with the YES teens. “A lot of my friends are outside of science, so I know there is a huge gap between what’s actually happening in science and the public’s understanding of what’s happening,” says Gamble, who often finds himself in the role of a one-man ‘Mythbuster.’ I like the opportunity to talk to kids, not just to bridge the gap in understanding, but also to get kids excited about science. I think both of those are great things.”
Incidentally, Bill Nye is currently at work on a documentary series on the neuroscience of childhood development.
CCSN outreach is funded by a National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) grant.