Young brainiacs

By Chloe Wilcox, communications specialist, University of Utah Health

Each year during Brain Awareness Week, University of Utah faculty, staff and graduate students volunteer to provide elementary and high school students opportunities to learn more about the wonders of the brain. “The best part about this is actually seeing students engaged,” said Daniel Rivera, one of the 40 graduate student volunteers. “They’re really getting exposed to new things, not just a textbook.”

Pratyush Suryavansi, a graduate student in the Neuroscience doctoral program, leads an activity about how we see during Brain Awareness Week.

This year, the volunteers presented at eight schools throughout the Salt Lake valley from March 11-15, bringing educational activities into the classrooms. Hands-on activities included touching real brains, using concussion goggles, looking at fluorescent brain cells in flies and worms, as well as learning and memory games. The week concluded with Brain Awareness Day on Saturday, March 16, at The Leonardo, where these various activities were presented to the public free of charge.

The first presentation of the week was at Rose Park Elementary. Excited students lined up, peeking into a room of volunteers eager to teach them. Each table had a different activity, and the materials presented included brains, fruit flies, tadpoles and electrical instruments. As the students entered the room, their initial excitement continually increased. Wide-eyed, a number of them asked incredulously, “Are these brains real?” Seemingly timid students began both answering and asking questions.

One student in particular, named Hawa, had impressed the graduate students by calmly raising her hand amidst the chaos of her more rambunctious classmates. Her classmate had asked why the brain had wrinkles, and Hawa was able to explain that the folds helped to keep the brain more compact while still storing a lot of information.

Marta Iversen and Chantel Charleboi, graduate students in the University of Utah’s bioengineering program, guide elementary students through activities promoting brain health for Brain Awareness Week.

The graduate students scattered throughout the room patiently taught the ins and outs of their presentations, answered questions and expertly simplified and formulated their answers for the students to understand. Rivera, a first-year graduate student in the University of Utah’s Neuroscience doctoral program and first-time volunteer, explained that he enjoys “being able to give back as well as teach the younger generation.” Rivera noted that the program is able to help students engage with learning in a way that, in comparison to textbooks and lectures, is tangible and interesting.

Brain Awareness Week, sponsored locally by the U’s neuroscience program and the U’s Neuroscience Initiative, is a global campaign designed to increase awareness of the benefits of brain research as well as engage students. Christine Wnukowski, Brain Awareness Week co-chair, emphasized that this week is “an opportunity for the scientific community to share, in a simple way, the basics of neuroscience and recent findings in research.”

Not only does the program teach these students about the brain, but it also helps to introduce them to topics surrounding higher education and STEM fields. Kim Lane, a member of the extended learning program, which helps to bring Brain Awareness Week to schools, stressed that for this specific population “it is really important for [the students] to get connected with University students so that they are interested in going to college.” This goes along with the underlying theme of Brain Awareness Week, which can help to connect the students with opportunities beyond high school.