D.C. students get hands-on with brains

BAW 2009 optical illusion_content
Are the snakes moving? No, as you see when you focus on one of the black dots. At the National Museum of Health and Medicine, a researcher from the National Institutes of Mental Health explains the visual science behind such optical illusions. [Illusion by Akiyoshi Kitaoka; link to a bigger version]

D.C. area students get hands-on with brains

The National Museum of Health and Medicine—nestled snugly in the heart of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, nearly 2 miles north of the Mall—is not the best known or easiest of Washington, D.C.’s museums to find.

But it’s hard to think of a more appropriate place to hold a local Brain Awareness Week (BAW) event than this unassuming building, which houses one of the world’s foremost collections of neuroanatomical specimens, some 37,000 examples of normal, diseased, rare and unusual brain matter.

So for 10 years now, researchers and educators from across the area have gathered annually at the museum to offer local middle and high school students chance to learn in-depth about neuroscience topics to which they otherwise might not be exposed.

Yesterday, for instance, scientists from the National Institutes of Health hosted most of the activities, six stations covering topics from sleep to aging to perception, all heavy on audience participation and hands-on activities.

Not only did students have a chance to square off against one another in a quiz show and to try their hand at the mind-bending Stroop test, they also were able to hold a preserved human brain and to don frosted goggles to simulate alcohol’s effects on vision and reaction time.

BAW 2009 kids with brain_spotlight
Students at the Boyd School in Chantilly, Va., inspect a preserved human brain, one of the activities during Brain Awareness Week tours at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. (photos by Nicky Penttila)
The activities seemed to strike a chord with students. Raucous cries of disbelief and understanding filled the air when volunteers highlighted some classic optical illusions, while other kids shouted “No way” and “How do they do that?” upon learning that dolphins sleep with only one-half of their brains at a time so they can keep swimming.

For Myrtle Brijbasi, who teaches juniors and seniors at Suitland High School in Forestville, Md., the trip was well worth it, providing material that she plans to follow up in subsequent weeks. “We participate in the Brain Bee every year, but this is our first time in Brain Awareness Week,” she said. “I thought [the presentations] were great; it was very interactive, and I was impressed.”

As one of the earliest BAW events, the D.C. event has been refined over the years and now serves as a model for other organizations and science museums seeking to host neuroscience activities. It also has garnered a momentum all its own; though designed primarily for middle school students, the event now draws groups ranging from early elementary school to the last year of high school. In fact, the museum fielded several phone calls this year from interested high school students who had heard about the previous programs and wanted to arrange a visit.

But nothing speaks to the quality of the program more than the volunteers who keep returning year after year, eager for the chance to influence young minds and convey the excitement of their chosen field.

“This is a lot of fun,” said Catherine Sasek, a researcher at the National Institute on Drug Abuse who has been involved with the activities since their inception a decade ago. “We have a really good time. Hopefully the kids learned something—maybe one or two will grow up to become neuroscientists!”

Aalok Mehta

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