Thursday, March 12, 2009

Brain Awareness Week

Yesterday I spent the morning and part of the afternoon teaching seventh graders at Sutton Middle School about neuroscience as part of Brain Awareness Month. A classmate and I partnered up for this outreach activity, which required us to create a lesson plan that met Georgia Performance Standards for Science and covered some of the Society for Neuroscience's Core Concepts. We chose to talk about neurotoxins, specifically those found in some poisonous species of native Georgia wildlife (the Eastern coral snake and the black widow spider).

My partner (fellow first-year neuroscience Ph.D. student Karen Murray) and I worked together to design our lesson. I made a PowerPoint presentation that covered the basic concepts of neurons, synapses, and the neuromuscular junction, as well as neurotoxins and their effects. Karen created a worksheet that contained questions for the students to answer as they listened to our lesson, as well as some more in-depth "thinking questions" to do for homework. We also collaborated to design an in-class activity in which students acted out synaptic transmission at the neuromuscular junction by throwing Jolly Rancher candies (representing the neurotransmitter acetylcholine) into decorated shoeboxes (receptors). I've uploaded
the PowerPoint presentation to my Emory webspace and created a globally-accessible Google Documents version, as well. (The Google version contains some errors caused by the change in file format, and it doesn't include additional the notes I made for each slide in PowerPoint.) If you're interested in using any of this material for a similar activity, please let me know and I'd be happy to send along all of my notes.

Overall, I think the lesson went quite well. The kids seemed engaged and attentive. We tried to do a lot of interactive teaching -- asking the kids what they thought "neuroscience" was before we defined it ourselves, helping them to break down tricky words like "neurotransmitter," and constantly reinforcing the material we had just covered ("So, the neurotransmitter at the neuromuscular junction is called acetylcholine. And which cell has the neurotransmitter? Is it the neuron, or is it the muscle cell?"). I think this teaching style paid off, because by the end of the lesson all of the students had filled out their in-class worksheets perfectly. We also structured the lesson such that every ten minutes or so, we were acting out neurotransmission under different conditions (normal, in the presence of coral snake venom, and in the presence of black widow spider venom). Getting out of their seats and watching their classmates act a bit goofy (we had one student play the muscle in each skit, and they were great at flexing their biceps and doing their best bodybuilder impressions) seemed to keep the students entertained, and we never spent long blocks of time just lecturing.

Here I am in the classroom, talking about neurotoxins. (I've cropped out Karen, in case she doesn't want silly pictures of herself on the internet. I've also cropped out students who were facing the camera or in profile; hopefully the parents of the students pictured won't be upset that I'm showing the backs of their heads here. If you are such a parent, please contact me.) I was impressed with the questions that students came up with on this subject, like "Why does a black widow spider need to use a neurotoxin to catch its food?" I'm not sure anyone knows the definitive answer to that question, so I talked about how different animals have evolved different strategies for survival, and this spider happens to use venom as a strategy. We talked about other strategies that predators use, such as being bigger, faster, and stronger than their prey (like a lion). Perhaps using a neurotoxin to catch prey allows the spider to devote less resources to being big and strong and more resources into things like making baby spiders.

We also got some great questions about the kinds of jobs a neuroscientist can do (I explained the different between neuroscience and neurology/neurosurgery -- we're not medical doctors, although a lot of us do research on clinically relevant subjects). One student even came up to me after class and said that he wants to be a scientist and would love to learn more about what it's like to do scientific research. I talked to him for a few minutes and encouraged him to email me if he had any more questions. My heart pretty much melted at that point. But then, another student came up to me after class and asked if he could buy some Jolly Ranchers off of us! I guess they can't all be future scientists.

I had a great time doing this outreach activity, and I would definitely go back to public schools in the future. Several students asked if we go to lots of other schools talking about neuroscience, and we explained that this was our first year in the neuroscience program and thus our first time participating in Brain Awareness Month. I hope that the questions we got about this imply that students couldn't
tell that it was our first time, and thus that we did a pretty good job. All in all, it was a great experience for me, and hopefully for the students, too.

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