UF neuroscience students celebrate Brain Awareness Week with demos for 2,500 kids

Students play games to learn about the brain.By Michelle Koidin Jaffee

UF neuroscience students spread out to public schools across the Gainesville region this week and also hosted field trips at UF’s McKnight Brain Institute and academic health center, sharing curious insights and fun facts to get kids excited about learning about the brain.

As part of the global Brain Awareness Week campaign, UF graduate and undergrad students who belong to the North Central Florida Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience visited 19 public schools and one private school, leading interactive games and hands-on demonstrations.

Coordinated by the Dana Foundation, a private philanthropic organization that supports brain research, Brain Awareness Week is being celebrated this year March 11 to 17 by more than 5,600 partners in 120 countries. The goal of Brain Awareness Week is to raise public awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research.

BAW4UF students traveled to 144 classrooms across the region, hoping to inspire 2,500 children ranging from first-graders to high school seniors. In addition, on March 13, the UF students hosted 21 homeschooled children and 48 high school seniors from biology classes in Eastside High Schools international baccalaureate, or IB, program.

Led by the UF neuroscience students and Ronald J. Mandel, Ph.D., professor of neuroscience, the students learned about the five senses through demonstrations such as the “super-taster test” — placing a strip of paper on the tongue to see if it tasted exceptionally bitter — and learned about anatomy through a sheep brain dissection.

One IB student, 17-year-old Shreya Pathak, said she hopes to become a physician one day.

“In class, we get a lot of lab time, but I think seeing professionals in the field and seeing what really happens in the real world helps us understand the applicability of what we’re learning in class and why it’s important,” Pathak said.

Also during the field trip, “I learned that I’m a super-taster. That paper tasted horrible!” she said with a laugh. “It was so bitter.”

BAW6Jennifer DeHart, IB biology teacher at Eastside, noted that her students’ midterm exam was dissecting a fetal pig.

“Many of them have a passion for biology,” DeHart said. “Many have expressed interest in careers in medicine and research. Bringing them here is a taste of the future for many of them.”

Younger children made “neurons” out of pipe cleaners and colored on maps of the brain to learn about the different regions.

“I really want to foster enthusiasm in younger children and have them seek out science as a career path or even a hobby or a passion,” said Julianne Price, vice chair of UF Brain Awareness Week and a fourth-year graduate student in cognitive neuroscience.

And even when Brain Awareness Week is over, UF’s chapter of the Society for Neuroscience continues to host many activities throughout the year to spark excitement among kids in the community, said Marissa Ciesla, president of the local chapter and a fourth-year grad student in neuroscience.

“I’m hoping that this encourages kids to seek scientific paths when they do come to college or throughout their life, really get them excited and get into these STEM fields,” Ciesla said.