It was only appropriate that one of the first events of this year’s Society for Neuroscience meeting in Chicago focused on neuroscience education and outreach efforts, particularly those of Brain Awareness Week (BAW). SfN president Tom Carew chose education as the defining theme of his tenure as leader, and BAW is the most prominent annual event promoting the brain sciences to the general public around the globe.
More than 200 students, teachers and scientists packed a session room at McCormick Place to hear from Carew and Nick Spitzer of the University of California, San Diego, on how SfN is helping to promote educational activities and how those efforts might change in the future. “Brain awareness has not only expanded but continues to grow,” said Spitzer, citing a record number of groups, 33, who presented posters of their outreach work at the session. Part of that growth, he added, is the wealth of material–much of it in now in convenient digital formats–available from SfN and other groups like the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, which co-sponsored the event.
Carew described his experience speaking at a teacher’s conference, which showed him that teachers are hungry for detailed knowledge of the brain. “They were so thrilled not only that I was talking science to them but that I was not talking down to them” by simplifying the material, he said. Teachers can be powerful allies in brain outreach activities by acting as “second messengers,” he said. “If you get them involved, then after that the whole school comes on board, and then the school board comes on board.”
Last week, SfN released a report from a June summit on neuroeducation, a fledgling field that combines neuroscience, psychology and education research to create better teaching methods. The field faces many challenges, as the different disciplines work in vastly different ways and use different vocabularies, Carew said, but the experts at the summit have outlined definite steps to take to advance the field. He’s particularly optimistic about the field’s prospects because of SfN’s membership, which recently passed 40,000, about one-third are graduate students or postdocs. While many of them will pursue traditional academic careers, other career options are increasing, he said, including neuroeducation.
Also featured at the event were several special attendees, who had received travel stipends to the meeting in reward for their outreach efforts or accomplishments. Two undergraduate students–Allison Batties of Lycoming College and Michael Miller of Binghamton University–received SfN/Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience awards for their education efforts. In an interview after the event, Batties, who organized a series of hands-on activities for middle schoolers called “Brains Are Us,” said her first SfN meeting has been an amazing experience so far. “There’s a lot to look at–I’m excited to wander around,” she said. “Since I attend a small liberal arts college, without this award, there’s no way I could have gotten funding to come here.”
Michael Reed, head coach of the science olympiad team at Grand Haven High School in Michigan, echoed her sentiments. SfN paid the way for him and two of his students, Kent Brummel and Blake Shultz, to attend the conference as a reward for teens’ first-place win in the health sciences category of the national competition. “The focus on education seems appropriate,” Reed added. “There is an awful lot of information available for people to learn about the brain. The key is to try to get people to think about it. It’s information people need to know about, to be better students or teachers.”