Get to Know Brain Awareness Week Partners: An Interview with Eric. H. Chudler, Ph.D.

An Interview with Eric. H. Chudler, Ph.D., University of Washington

March 11, 2011

Eric Chudler - thumbnail

Eric. H. Chudler, Ph.D.
Research Associate Professor
Director of Education and Outreach, UWEB
Department of Bioengineering
University of Washington

Dana Foundation (DF): Your dedication to educating young people on the brain is evident through your Brain Awareness Week (BAW) activities and your year-round work. Can you talk about how you became interested in specifically reaching out to younger students?

Eric Chudler (EC): Both of my parents were teachers and I noticed how much they enjoyed working with young students. So, perhaps working with young students runs in the family. In the early 1990s when my daughter was in preschool, I was asked to visit her class to talk to the children about my job. Because the kids were very young (4-5 years old), it was challenging to present the work of a neuroscientist to the group. Nevertheless, I was able to bring materials and games that allowed the children to explore their senses and make discoveries about how their brains function.

As my daughter advanced through elementary and middle school, I continued to visit her classrooms and teachers from other classes started to request presentations, too. When Brain Awareness Week started, it was a natural extension of my outreach work. BAW provided a spotlight for neuroscience education and outreach and a way to encourage other neuroscientists to become involved in working with young students.

DF: The resources on your Neuroscience for Kids Web site are used by many BAW partners. The range of materials for students and teachers includes brain puzzles, BAW lesson plans, resources translated into 10 languages, and more. Can you talk a bit about your process and/or inspiration for developing new resources?

EC: In 1997, I was fortunate to receive a Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) from the National Center for Research Resources at the National Institutes of Health. This SEPA grant allowed me to develop the Neuroscience for Kids Web site and to disseminate these new materials through the Internet.

The articles, experiments, games, demonstrations, and activities on Neuroscience for Kids, are a joint collaboration between neuroscientists and precollege teachers. Neuroscientists can write a piece, for example an experiment or summary of new research, and then I edit it. The article is then sent to teachers who check the piece for language and determine if it is appropriate for the classroom. Alternatively, a teacher could write an experiment or article, which I edit and then send to neuroscientists who check for scientific accuracy. When all parties are satisfied with the piece, it is posted to the Neuroscience for Kids Web site.

The translations of the Web site have come about serendipitously. People in other countries have written to me to express their appreciation for the material but have said that many people where they live cannot understand English. They requested permission to translate Neuroscience for Kids material into their own languages. To date, portions of Neuroscience for Kids have been translated into Spanish, Chinese, Portuguese, Italian, Slovene, Korean, Dutch, Telugu, Turkish and Japanese.

DF: Each year, your Brain Awareness Week Open House at the University draws nearly 700 students. The event is organized with help from a team of individuals and with several supporting institutions. What advice would you give to other BAW partners who would like to organize events on this scale?

EC: The Open House at the University of Washington (UW) is really a team effort. I work with the graduate student-run organization called UW Neurobiology & Behavior Community Outreach. This program mobilizes student volunteers to staff exhibits and provides assistance with the logistics of the open house. The efforts of UW N&B Community Outreach were recognized in 2007 with the first Society for Neuroscience Next Generation Award. In addition to UW N&B Community Outreach, the open house is staffed by volunteers from many academic and clinical departments and also by members of local patient support groups. The time and effort of these volunteers is really what makes the open house a success.

Establishing partnerships is the best advice I can give to others who are interested in organizing large events. It is quite difficult for one person to organize an event that requires extensive planning and coordination of so many different activities (e.g., recruiting schools, planning exhibits and speakers, fundraising, arranging a venue).

It is also important to allow plenty of planning time for a large event. There may be few places with sufficient space for several hundred attendees. Here at the University of Washington, we have had access to the university ballroom, the only place on campus that can hold such a large group. Unfortunately, we are moving off campus this year because the building that houses the ballroom is undergoing renovation. It took time to scout and secure a new venue. Sufficient time is also needed to recruit and prepare teachers who will come to the event and for exhibitors to develop their exhibits.

DF: You’ve said one of the benefits of the Open House event is that it provides an opportunity to connect researchers and clinicians who do not normally interact. Have you seen new collaborations result from these interactions? What have you learned by bringing these groups together?

EC: Neuroscience is such a diverse field, with research scientists and clinicians working on a variety of topics using a multitude of different techniques. Brain Awareness Week brings these scientists together with a common goal: to share their knowledge and excitement for brain research with the public. The UW BAW Open House has resulted in some new collaborations. For example, I have been able to work with some BAW Open House exhibitors to develop a 30-minute TV show called “BrainWorks,” and I presented a joint poster presentation at a scientific meeting with other exhibitors.

DF: During BAW you travel to elementary and high schools in Washington to speak to students about the brain. Do you have any specific advice for BAW partners about how to present these topics to very young students (grades 1-3)?

EC: First, I would suggest that BAW partners start small, perhaps just one or two classes. Try a few different activities to see what works and what does not work and refine your presentation.

Second, keeps things simple and active. Hands-on, interactive activities related to the senses are especially appealing to young students. Simple experiments and demonstrations about vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell can be part of an excellent presentation. Remember to watch your language by choosing your words carefully and reducing jargon that young children will not understand.

Third, try to enjoy the experience. Most BAW partners are donating their time so visits to classrooms should be something that they enjoy doing. Enthusiasm is contagious; when presenters have fun, so do the kids.

DF: Many BAW partners have limited financial resources available to organize activities. Do you have any tips for planning events with a limited budget? What advice would you give to partners who would like to seek financial support for their events?

EC: BAW activities do not have to be elaborate affairs. My first BAW events consisted of several visits to local schools and the costs for supplies were minimal. As BAW has grown and involved more students and events, finances have become an issue.

To assist with financial issues, I would suggest that BAW partners collaborate with a local chapter of the Society for Neuroscience (SfN). Many SfN chapters have an interest in education and outreach and participate in BAW. SfN chapters can apply for a chapter grant from SfN headquarters that could help fund BAW activities.

For several years, UW BAW events received financial assistance from the Hope Heart Institute, a local nonprofit organization. I have also had some success obtaining donations from local businesses. These businesses have provided gift certificates, books, and bicycle helmets that are given to students and teachers at various BAW events. Of course, the Dana Foundation has always been very generous in providing materials and resources for BAW.