Thursday, May 6, 2010

Middle school students get a feel for the brain

On a sunny spring day at Zoo Atlanta, 13-year-old Tamecia Burson literally got hands-on with the human brain.

With the encouragement of Michael Black, a post-doctoral researcher in GSU’s Neuroscience Institute, the seventh grader cautiously reached out to touch the brain’s gyri and sulci, or folds and grooves, before she quickly pulled away.

“I really don’t like touching stuff like that,” she said, “but I’m glad I did it anyway.”

Burson was one of 180 students of Decatur’s Renfroe Middle School who took part in the April 30 Brain Expo, sponsored by the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience.

The center, headquartered at Georgia State, is a consortium of seven Atlanta-area universities, dedicated to furthering research into neuroscience, as well as educating students from elementary school through college about a field that explores the mysteries of the mind. The expo has been produced since 2003.

“My students get an opportunity to experience firsthand the things we we’ve talked about in class,” said Susan Brooks, a seventh-grade science teacher at Renfroe whose class attended the event. “The expo is wonderful because I don’t always have the resources to put on an activity like that.”

Students made their way around teaching exhibits, ranging from the opportunity to touch a human brain, to learning about the phantom limb phenomenon — where the brain can still feel a limb even though it might be amputated. They also learned about sleep, memory, and the effects of alcohol on the brain by trying to dunk a basketball through a hoop while wearing visual distortion goggles.

“I really liked the optical illusion [station] and the ‘too drunk to dunk’ one,” said Mirina Garoufalidis, 12. “The opportunity to touch the brain was interesting, and I also liked learning about sleep.”

The expo was also more than an opportunity for middle school students to learn. Undergraduate and graduate students, as well as high school students from Central Gwinnett High School all took responsibility to operate and create the exhibits, learning more about teaching through the process.

Teaching, as the students of GSU’s Biology 4916/6916 course learned through preparation for the expo, is no small task.

For starters, after you’ve learned so much about neuroscience at advanced levels, figuring out how to explain concepts in a simple fashion and to make them accessible to 12 and 13-year-olds isn’t easy.

“It’s hard to explain these concepts to middle school students, and it takes a lot of effort to create exhibits that will help them understand,” said Mahin Shahbazi, a doctoral student at GSU.

In the end, though, all of that hard work pays off when you’ve sparked a student’s interest in science.

“Not only are we helping to develop new knowledge among both populations of students, the visiting middle schoolers and the university students, but we’re also generating a new enthusiasm for science,” said Kyle Frantz, associate professor of neuroscience and Director of the Expo.

The experiences learned through the process will help Ashley Belflower, a graduating senior at Georgia State, pursue her dream of teaching elementary school pupils. She designed and worked a station that demonstrated the importance of learning and physical activity in order to keep the brain active and its connections alive — something that’s important throughout the lifespan.

“The students have to figure out solutions to problems we present, learning which brain parts might be most active during the process,” she said. “I hope that they would like to pursue neuroscience one day, and I hope that they learn that science is important. I want them to realize that it’s fun, not something that’s boring.”

The Center for Behavioral Neuroscience includes Georgia State, Emory University, Georgia Tech, Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, the Morehouse School of Medicine and Spelman College.

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