Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Brainstorming new methods of scientific outreach

Teachers of all grades often struggle to find memorable, useful, and affordable techniques for exposing their students to science; students often long for an innovative, hands-on way to learn about science without sitting through a tedious series of lectures. A group of educators from the Los Angeles area have created a program, Project Brainstorm, to solve both of these problems, while simultaneously improving relationships between academic institutions and local communities.

Writing in the Community Page section of PLoS Biology, the collaborators describe their 5-year-old creation, which has already involved >100 undergrads, >60 classrooms across 30 different local schools, and >1900 schoolchildren. The lynchpin of the project is student teaching; specifically, university undergraduates work together in two- or three-person groups to create a 45-minute presentation that will be delivered to local students. When they enroll in the course, the undergrads are given an outline of the material they should understand, but it is up to them to do research on these topics and then use their new-found knowledge to design a lesson plan appropriate for their target audience. Their final product is field-tested in front of fellow students and a panel of other academics so that it can be perfected before taken into local classrooms.

Figure 1 (courtesy of PLoS Biology). UCLA neuroscience undergraduate students teaching local school children about the brain. (A) Explaining how the water in a jar protects an egg from breaking in much the same way that the cerebrospinal fluid protects the brain from damage. (B) School children look at healthy and diseased human brains wrapped in plastic. (C) Undergraduate neuroscience student introduces the brain to a classroom of seventh grade students. (D) Classroom of fifth grade students learn the gross anatomy of the brain from an undergraduate student holding a model human brain. All participants in this study (legal guardians of school children, undergraduate and graduate students) provided signed consent to publication of their likeness as part of this project.

Although Project Brainstorm focuses on neuroscience, the authors write that its format could easily be altered to accommodate other fields of scientific research. In a classroom where students are all neuroscience novices, a typical presentation would begin with a 5-minute introduction of the nervous system (covering basics such as the structure/function of neurons, and overall brain anatomy), proceed to a 10-minute discussion of a "brain-in-perspective" topic (such as how people learn, gender differences in brain function, or the impact of drugs), and then end with a 30-minute hands-on practical where students break out into small groups and work their way through stations allowing them to compare brain specimens from different species, examine sections of injured brains, and engage in other (student-developed) activities. At the end of the Project Brainstorm class, undergrads hand in brief lesson plans detailing their presentations. These are compiled by the course instructors and can be accessed by primary and secondary teachers for use in their own classrooms.

The creators of Project Brainstorm developed it with the goal of improving the lives of everyone involved in the course. Schoolchildren get the chance to learn about neuroscience, a topic that they will often not explore in great detail until they are undergraduates; further, they can use their contact with current university students to learn more about tertiary education, potential scientific careers, and the specific institutions with which the guest lecturers are affiliated. The undergrads themselves will get experience teaching, which is not only a useful thing to put on their CVs but also a potential eye-opener to a career they might not previously have considered. Education studies have also shown that individuals tend to learn information more completely when they are required to teach it to others; group learning has a similar effect. Thus, Project Brainstorm students may retain more details than they would if they had simply sat in neuroscience lectures all semester. Throughout the class, graduate students also help guide and inform course participants, which means that these older students will also benefit from the opportunity to gain experience with teaching.

A very important by-product of Project Brainstorm is the facilitation of positive relationships between academic institutions and the local community; hopefully, it also fosters goodwill towards, and acceptance of, science in general. In a time when the public seems to be losing faith in the power of scientific thinking and research, this sort of outreach may help convince people that science--and even scientists themselves--can be approachable, interesting, useful, and fun.

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Romero-Calderon, R., O'Hare, E.D., Suthana, N.A., Scott-Van Zeeland, A.A., Rizk-Jackson, A., Attar, A., Madsen, S.K., Ghiani, C.A., Evans, C.J., and Watson, J.B. 2012. Project Brainstorm: using neuroscience to connect college students with local schools. PLoS Biology 10(4):e1001310.

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