Grad students bring brain to middle school

By Melissa Oveson

Olena Filchakova spoke as several seventh graders reached for plastic gloves.

“I will now show you the human brain,” said Filchakova, a graduate student in neuroscience.

She held out pieces of the brain and spinal cord as students touched, squirmed and gasped at the displays. She then encouraged students to touch the spinal cord.

One student shuddered as he asked, “Is that really inside of us?”

“Yes,” Filchakova said.

The student returned a disgusted look.

The human brain was one of five exhibits U graduate students in neuroscience brought to Northwest Middle School on Monday as part of Brain Awareness Week. Supported by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, a nonprofit organization of neuroscientists, Brain Awareness Week is celebrated internationally to increase public awareness of the benefits and current progress in brain research.

Each exhibit featured activities designed to help young adults learn about the importance of keeping the brain healthy. One exhibit included numerous optical illusions which Rebecca Parker, a graduate student in neuroscience, shared with students. Parker helped students understand the science behind the illusions by teaching about shadows and points of reference. She also challenged students to taste the flavor of a jellybean with their noses plugged. Students laughed and tried to outsmart the rest as they guessed the flavor.

“It’s a lot of fun,” said Rhandi Rawson, a graduate student in neuroscience. “Kids ask great questions.”

The exhibit will travel to different venues this week including Juan Diego High School, Judge Memorial High School and the YWCA.

Northwest Middle School was chosen because of an outgoing teacher, Niki Hack, who once worked as a researcher at the U. She joked about taking a major pay cut to pursue her passion for teaching.

“Today has a bit of a dual purpose,” Hack said. “I think it’s great for students to meet young people involved in science.”

She described the graduate students as role models to help get students involved in science because some days she just feels too old for her seventh graders to relate to.

“They will talk about this for weeks and weeks,” Hack said. “It’s kind of frightening that’s the only thing they will remember you by, but it’s fun.”

During the school visit, Rawson quizzed kids on different animals and brought a sheep brain and two mouse brains for observation. Her exhibit also included several models of different aspects of the human brain, including the cerebellum, which plays a part in the body’s sense of balance; the olfactory for smell and an optic lobe for vision.

In another exhibit, kids learned about the importance of being healthy and exercising. Three human brains were on display showing the negative effects that injuries and poor health have on the brain. Students were also shown the effects of continued drug use and were encouraged to avoid drugs.

“We are not presenting it to scare them,” said Andrea Schwager, a graduate student in neuroscience who was in charge of the exhibit. “We are giving them the scientific view to show them the effects.”

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