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December 19, 2012 // By Greg Richter // Comments

Third Graders Evaluate Neuroscience Work

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IMG_0737When Maxine Hobson, program coordinator of Penn’s Biological Basis of Behavior program (BBB) invited schools to this year’s Penn KidsJudge! Neuroscience Fair, she explained that the third graders would not only be learning through hand-on activities, but they would also judge the work of Penn undergraduate and graduate students. One of the third graders cautiously took on this responsibility, expressing to program leaders that he “didn’t want to give one of the Penn students a bad grade.”

With great enthusiasm, the approximately 150 third graders from two nearby schools -- Global Leadership Academy Charter School and Saint Francis DeSales School -- showed they were ready to evaluate the exhibits before them in Houston Hall. The neuroscience fair’s projects at this science-fair switcheroo were created by undergraduate BBB majors and graduate neuroscience students. After visitors participated in all projects, they were asked to vote for those they enjoyed and learned from most.

“For me, the highlight of this is that it’s students teaching students, and then students evaluating students,” said Marc Schmidt, director of the BBB program. “They’re close in age, sort of role models, and some kids think, ‘they are young, smart, and teaching us cool stuff about the brain.’”

A few exhibit examples:

  • Brainapalooza: Faculty and students let the student judges learn about and touch brains from various animals.
  • Save-A-Head: Brain Damage exhibit shows the fragility of the brain inside its skull and the importance of protecting it with helmets when hard impacts are possible.
  • Spin City: First, kids run a relay race before and after spinning around to show how the vestibular (balance) system functions. Next, kids watch an animated explanation of how the vestibular system functions. Finally, the kids watch a movie of a roller coaster on a large screen which demonstrates how other neurological pathways can influence the vestibular system and make the students feel dizzy even though they’re sitting on a floor the entire time.
  • Magic Berries: Kids try sour tasting foods, then taste a lollipop with the protein miraculin in it, and then experience the once sour tasting foods taste sweet

“I think the biggest challenge for us is simplifying what we know for a third grader,” said Ceren Ozek, third year student in Penn’s neuroscience PhD program, who showed kids various parts of different brains and the role those parts serve.

The annual Penn KidsJudge! Neuroscience Fair is part of a national education program aimed at making scientists better communicators and elementary school children better scientists. Penn’s Mahoney Institute of Neurological Sciences, the Biological Basis of Behavior Program, and grants from the National Kids Judge! Partnership, the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, and National Institute on Drug Abuse fund the event.

“It’s pretty cool to see the inspiration on the kid’s faces as they realize when science comes alive and is part of everyday life,” said Leonardo Guercio, who is now in the neuroscience PhD program at Penn.

After the exhibits, the winning groups were announced at a pizza party for all.  Kids sang along to BBB lecturer-turned-DJ Mike Kaplan’s “Brain in a Jar” song to cap off the event.

“They learn so much,” said Hobson. “I get letters from teachers saying their kids remember the neuroscience they learn here.”

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