UF neuroscience students celebrate Brain Awareness Week with K-12 outreach

By Michelle Koidin Jaffee

The questions kept coming from the 22 middle- and high-schoolers, one after another: How do you tell whether brain-activation changes appearing on an MRI screen are from finger tapping, or a response to noise? How does ADHD work in the brain? What is the salary for a neuroscientist?

BAW feature

In celebration of Brain Awareness Week, University of Florida neuroscience graduate students welcomed the sixth- to 12th-grade homeschool group to UF’s McKnight Brain Institute for a day of MRI and EEG demonstrations, laboratory tours, peeks into a microscope and a lecture by Ron Mandel, Ph.D., a UF professor of neuroscience.

“A lot of times if you aren’t exposed to a career field, you don’t even know that it exists,” said Naomi Wilhelm, 16, an 11th-grader who is dual-enrolled at Santa Fe College and hopes to become a nurse. “I found the day really interesting and it inspired me, and it relates to more things in my life than just what field I’m going into.”

The visit kicked off a week of outreach efforts organized by the North Central Florida Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience, whose members fanned out to eight public schools to lead brain-focused activities, from making colorful pipe-cleaner “neurons” to sheep-brain dissection.

Celebrated around the world each March, Brain Awareness Week promotes brain research and brain health and aims to spark interest in schools, medical and professional organizations, government agencies and more. (This year’s official Brain Awareness Week is March 11-17, but UF celebrated early due to spring break.)

Sponsors of UF’s celebration of Brain Awareness Week this year were: the McKnight Brain Institute, the UF Department of Neuroscience, UF’s Center for Cognitive Aging and Memory Clinical Translational Research, UF’s Brain Injury, Rehabilitation and Neuroresilience Center and UF’s Breathing Research and Therapeutics Center (BREATHE).

A total of 64 UF undergraduate and graduate students volunteered March 4-8, bringing presentations to about 1,200 K-12 students at eight area schools: Gainesville High School, Howard Bishop Middle School, Newberry Elementary School, Meadowbrook Elementary School, Archer Elementary School, P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, Fort Clarke Middle School and Littlewood Elementary School.

neuro students holds out a test tube for inspection

This year, organizers launched new activities during the homeschool visit, including having Andrew Moore, a Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience and current president of the local SfN chapter, slide into an MRI so students could see a live image of a brain during a scan and, later, attaching EEG electrodes to his head so they could see his brain waves projected on a giant screen and learn a bit about how to decipher what the lines represent.

“A lot of times, if you’re learning this material in class, it’s all just kind of an idea,” said Emely Gazarov, who with fellow doctoral neuroscience student Cristina Besosa Gomez chaired this year’s Brain Awareness Week at UF. “But having them actually see a brain scan in person and see the data, they’re like, ‘oh wow, this is real.’”

Added Besosa Gomez, “Both EEG and MRI are very important techniques for neuroscience, and we wanted them to be able to see what it was like.”

For the college and graduate students, the experience of sharing their knowledge with younger students is equally valuable, said Edith Kaan, Ph.D., one of three UF faculty members who volunteered at the outreach activities this year.

“We have students who do this to practice talking to people about their research — to distill things to the essence so that someone outside of their field can understand it,” Kaan said. “And that’s an important skill to have. This is a way to hone those skills.”