An Interview with Andrea Schierkolk
An Interview with Andrea Schierkolk

March 11, 2013

Andrea SchierkolkAndrea Schierkolk
Public Programs Manager
National Museum of Health and Medicine
Silver Spring, MD

Dana Foundation: Your week-long program for middle-school students draws several hundred students each year. Why specifically target this demographic?

Andrea Schierkolk: When students are in middle school, they are trying to determine who they are and who they want to be. They are thinking seriously about career paths. It is at this time that informal science education, like they are exposed to during our Brain Awareness Week program, makes an impression on them. Middle school is the ideal time to plant the seed for interest in sciences, so that they are ready to jump in when they start high school. When students attend our BAW program, they interact with neuroscientists who teach them about the brain as well as invite them to participate in activities where they get to “do” science. It gets them excited about neuroscience because they can actually imagine themselves one day solving the mysteries of the brain.

DF: During their visits, students have the opportunity to participate in several hands-on activities. Can you tell us about an activity that sticks out in your mind as a favorite among the participants?

AS: For the past 14 years, students have enjoyed visiting the “Drunken Brain” tent from our Partners in Education at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). As they step inside the multi-sensory exhibit and see the amazing “Drunken Brain,” pulsating with electricity and basking in a world of colored light and eerie sounds, they learn about some of the unique effects of alcohol on the brain and how alcohol exposure during pregnancy and adolescence can lead to possible brain damage and alcohol addiction later in life. The flashing lights represent the firing of neurons. At first they flash in a normal, predictable pattern; then they slow down and flash sporadically as if the neurons are being affected by alcohol.  It is an experience that stimulates all of the senses and results in a memorable experience that the students won’t forget.

DF: The Museum houses one of the world’s largest human and mammalian brain collections in the country. How are the brains incorporated into the Brain Awareness Week program, and how do the children react to seeing and holding real specimens?

AS: Of all the experiences that students have during Brain Awareness Week at the Medical Museum, I think the one that is most impacting is holding a real human brain specimen. Every year, the Museum’s own “brain collector” offers students a chance to hold a specimen from the collection. Each student dons a pair of bright purple nitrile gloves and waits excitedly for a turn to hold the brain. When they get it, they carefully turn it and examine it as they locate the olfactory bulb, the cerebellum, the visual cortex, the various lobes—all the while discussing function and form. When we issue student evaluations and ask what they remember most, it’s always—“Holding the real brain.” They love it! And, they remember it. We have students come back years after the program, and they all recall the same memory—“…and I remember when you let me hold a real brain.”  It is unforgettable and awe-inspiring.

Schierkolk BrainHold
Students hold real brain specimens at the NMHM’s 2012 BAW program.
(Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine)
DF: The Museum’s program is an example of a very successful collaborative effort, joining government agencies, hospitals, and universities. What do you think are the most important aspects of a successful collaborative relationship? Do you continue to seek out new partnerships each year?

AS: Collaborative efforts work when partners have a common goal and when they are willing to look outside of the box or step out of their comfort zone to find new ways to achieve these goals. The collaborators for our program have a common goal—to inspire the next generation of neuroscientists. They have a shared passion about the study and understanding of the brain, and they want to pass on this passion to the public. And, they’re not afraid to do something a little different, sometimes even a little wacky. 

The Museum’s mission is to inspire interest in medicine and to collect important resources to support a broad agenda of innovative exhibits, educational programs, and research. We have a world-renowned collection of brain materials.  As good stewards of this collection, we share it with the public through programs like Brain Awareness Week. At the same time, we hope that our collaborators will continue to use our collections as resources for continued study of the brain.

Some of our collaborators have been with us for 14 years, but we always strive to add new elements to the program with new partners.

DF: This will be the 14th year the Museum has participated in BAW. How has the program evolved since its start? Are there any new activities for this year that you’d like to highlight?

AS: The program has grown from a few partners doing hands-on activities for a couple days of BAW to a full week of programming with over 500 student attendees. The success of the program has led to a series of outreach “Brain Awareness Day” programs as far away as New York and as close by as Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia.  Our audiences now expect a BAW program to take place at the Museum each year—teachers plan their annual visits to the Museum during the program to complement their curriculum and to broaden their students’ exposure to neuroscience. And, our network of collaborators grows each year.

This year, we are very excited to highlight a new partner, the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program (CDMRP). Representatives from their spinal cord research program will demonstrate how the sensory system works by showing how an elephant nose fish, which emits a weak electric field to communicate, “sees” the world around it. The students will hear the amplified signal of the electric field as it is emitted by the fish.

We will welcome back the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center (DVBIC) who will do its “Brain Drop” activity where students learn about the main causes of traumatic brain injury in both civilian and military populations. Participants will learn about the benefits of protecting the brain as they simulate brain trauma by dropping an egg both with and without a protective “helmet.”

Schierkolk BrainDrop
Students learn the value of wearing sports helmets during the "brain drop" at the NMHM’s 2012 BAW program.
(Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine)
The National Institute of Mental Health will highlight the story of Phineas Gage and his famous 1848 railroad accident that lodged an iron spike in his frontal cortex. Depictions of his famous head injury and the changes seen in his personality following the accident will be demonstrated in an interactive way.

March 2013