Tales from the Lab: BAW 2013

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Tim Balmer, a neuroscience graduate student from Georgia State University, is guest blogging about the life of a graduate student for our “Tales from the Lab” series. This is Tim’s third blog post.

Children love asking questions. It’s how they explore our complicated world. Like scientists, children answer questions with experiments. For example, “Is this food?” may lead a child to put the item in question in his or her mouth. The “why” questions become particularly interesting at about age three. Sustaining a child’s interest in these questions is a great responsibility to society and is vital to the future of science—children who never stop asking these questions become scientists.

Brain Awareness Week (BAW) is a global campaign to increase public awareness of the progress and benefit of brain research. Since it was founded in 1996 by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, participants have inspired many thousands of students in classrooms around the world. The annual event officially occurs the third week of March (this year, March 11-15), although many partners are involved in classroom visits year-round.

During my Brain Awareness Week classroom visits, I tell students that if they focus throughout the class time, at the end they can touch a real human brain. Many students don’t believe me.

When I present the brain, the students are absolutely floored. To be honest, I am too—holding a brain is an amazing experience. A brain is surprisingly heavy and its appearance is deceptively homogeneous. The heavy pinkish mass is an intricate network of a hundred billion neurons with over 100 trillion synaptic connections among them. Both children and adults are excited to hold that mysterious organ that makes us human. Simply seeing a human brain doesn’t answer many questions about how it works, but as the students will demonstrate, it inspires a whole bunch.

How can you get involved?

Anyone can volunteer though a local BAW partner. If you’re a student, check to see if your school  has an outreach program.

What should you talk about during your classroom visit?

The Dana Foundation has many resources for your school visit including fun activities and presentations for all audiences. Below are some approaches that I have found to be effective during my visits:

A day in the life of a neuroscientist: If you’re a researcher, explain what you are doing in terms they will understand. You have a living brain in a dish?! You make cells glow in the dark?! Your rats push buttons for treats?! To them, your work is more than science—it’s science fiction.

EvolutionOnly 28% of public high school biology teachers describe the evidence for evolution and explain it as a unifying theme in biology. Brain Awareness Week is your opportunity to bring evolution to the classroom in any age group. Your local partner may have models or specimens of brains from different animals that can be compared in the context of their behavior. Why does the bird brain have such a large cerebellum and the fish brain have such a small one? How might the different environments and behaviors of these animals have led to these differences in brain structure? Basic questions like these can be used to illustrate important and fundamental concepts of evolution.

Drugs and the brain: Drugs, from caffeine and alcohol to psychedelics, are an interesting topic of conversation, especially to teenagers. Your Brain Awareness Week classroom visit is a great opportunity to explain that the effects of psychoactive drugs are due to changes that they cause in the brain, with special emphasis on how these changes can be permanent and undesirable, including addiction.

Ask the teacher: The teacher whose classroom you’re visiting may have ideas about what the students would be especially interested in. They may like you to discuss something that will tie into what they are currently teaching. Give the teacher some optional activities and they will help you plan your visit.

Brain Awareness Week Resources

The Dana Foundation

Society for Neuroscience Brain Awareness Week Resources

National Institute on Drug Abuse

Neuroscience for Kids

BrainU neuroscience lesson resources

Brain Museum: comparative brain anatomy 

– Tim Balmer

Tim Balmer is a Neuroscience Ph.D. student at Georgia State University. He studies the role of experience in the development and plasticity of sensory systems.

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