Brain Awareness Week Partner Interview: NW Noggin

Seimi Rurup
March 8, 2017

Griesar (left) and Leake (right) at the 2016 Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego

This is the third in a series of Brain Awareness Week partner interviews, in which partners share their experiences and tips for planning successful events. Bill Griesar, Ph.D., is a psychology and neuroscience professor at Portland State University (PSU), Washington State University (WSU) Vancouver, and Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), and is the neuroscience outreach coordinator for NW Noggin (Neuroscience Outreach Group Growing In Networks). Griesar works together with Jeff Leake, who also teaches at PSU and WSUV, and is NW Noggin’s art education coordinator.

NW Noggin was conceptualized in 2012 for a group of middle school students at a public school in Portland, Oregon. With support from organizations like the Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) and the Association for Psychological Science, your group has now expanded to a nationwide focus. Can you talk about how you were able to expand so rapidly in such a short amount of time? 

BG: Through the tireless enthusiasm of our graduate and undergraduate volunteers, who quickly discovered how much they enjoy sharing what they’re learning about the brain with young people and the public. It’s also the multi-disciplinary nature of the outreach, with young scientists and artists working together and discovering similarities in their process: the creative experimentation, the structure-function relationships, the fun, often the messiness, and certainly the need to communicate!

We also reached out. Jeff and I already taught at several universities and knew there was strength in partnerships and a multi-institutional approach. There’s a wealth of resources in the Pacific Northwest—and in many areas around the country—and our students were naturally interested in connecting with collaborators from other schools. Our undergraduates benefit from exposure to graduate students and learn about graduate school, as well as federally-funded research opportunities at their own university and elsewhere. Graduate students gain useful experience designing academic curricula, teaching and engaging students, and working directly with school professionals, undergraduates, and kids.

You also need to inspire people about how much fun, educational and rewarding community service can be! Jeff and I have small budgets, our visits are free for public schools and the community, and we’re both regularly volunteering in classrooms, museums, hospitals, homeless youth centers—even a Portland bike shop/pub—which makes these Noggin opportunities genuine and compelling.

Fourth grade students from a San Diego public school during Noggin outreach at SfN. Photo courtesy of NW Noggin.

JL: One of the main reasons we grew so quickly, and became a non-profit last fall, is our capacity to act as a bridge between arts and science institutions that don’t normally communicate, including the American Brain Coalition, the Portland Art Museum, the Phillips Collection, Velo Cult, Portland’s P:ear homeless youth center, the Allen Institute, and public universities in two states.

Your pipe cleaner neurons were a hit at last year’s Society for Neuroscience conference in California—it’s great to see that NW Noggin has so much fun with outreach. What other kinds of creative projects do you organize to engage the public, and can you tell us a bit about how you develop them?

 JL: We work with a lot of students that we want to enthuse about science, art, and their own education—enough so that they will continue past high school to pursue further studies. However, many kids we work with have disengaged from school for one reason or another, so one of the things Bill and I asked ourselves is how do you get them excited and motivated about learning. Through this we quickly realized that arts integration is not about making science, or any subject, more palatable; it’s really about taking a look at how we learn and the means by which we can assess learning.

For us, we do this through three basic types of projects and activities. We have projects like these pipe cleaner neurons that are direct and interpretive representations of physical structures or processes, which allow students to creatively explore basic physical facts, helping them remember what these various components are and also allowing us as teachers to easily differentiate these lessons.

High school students at McCoy Academy in Portland, OR, learn about the electrical nature of brain activity with Noggin volunteers. Photo courtesy of NW Noggin.

We also have projects that serve as visual and tactile examples of complex biological processes, such as our blind touch sculptures that ask students to recreate an object they can’t see in clay by touch alone. This is a very direct example for them of how our tactile system gathers and interprets information. Last, we have projects that allow students to explore concepts in a way that can be assessed for understanding while accommodating a wide range of solutions. For example, I often have students create visual metaphors for an aspect of the function of a neuron (such as action potentials). These neuron metaphors still require an understanding of the basic function of a neuron but allow students to approach them in a way that can be personally relevant to them.

BG: We also post about every visit, highlighting the work done by our volunteers, and we include details of the art projects and the specific NIH-funded research behind our presentations. Teachers tell us that they and their students go to to learn more about the brain and behavior and sometimes share what they’ve learned with family and friends.

Taking a step away from Brain Awareness Week, you took a trip to the White House last fall and met with officials to discuss topics such as President Obama’s BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, funding for research, and personal challenges that can arise when pursuing a career in scientific research. Can you tell us a little more about this experience? (Did he love the pipe cleaner neurons?)

BG: This was an inspiring experience at the White House Frontiers conference in Pittsburgh, which celebrates innovation in many areas, including educational outreach. We met with extraordinary artists, scientists, and community activists and heard from the President himself, who said “I’m a science geek. I’m a nerd, and I don’t make any apologies for it,”—a line we often repeat to our students!

President Obama also asked us to keep challenging institutions, which can sometimes limit innovation through efforts to “brand” and standardize what people do. We were invited, he suggested, because we’re different, and he told us to keep taking risks. Not many countries, he added, were founded by inventors like Benjamin Franklin, willing to fly a kite in a lightning storm to uncover the secrets of electricity!

We did speak briefly with the President at a rope line, quickly noting that we spent a lot of time in classrooms exciting students about brain research with pipe cleaner neurons (festooned on myself and Jeff, and on Katie Sale, the Executive Director of the American Brain Coalition). And the President replied: “I LOVE those!”

We also met with the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy last spring, along with 26 graduate and undergraduate Noggin volunteers from PSU, OHSU, WSU Vancouver, and PNCA (Pacific Northwest College of Art)!  Our grad students were very interested in research funding opportunities for post-docs. While in DC, we brought brains and art projects to more than 500 middle school students, whose own beautiful network of pipe cleaner neurons later hung at the Phillips Collection for a public Neuroscience Night!

We’re now planning a bigger effort this fall, where many of our volunteers will be presenting their research at the Society for Neuroscience conference in Washington, DC. We’ll visit more public schools, tell legislators about our innovative STEAM outreach model, and raise the profile of scientific discovery with more smiling, engaged, excited, curious kids and members of Congress; young artists and neuroscientists; and creative, eye-catching educational art projects…

Speaking at the White House Frontiers conference, President Obama later told NW Noggin that he “loved” the pipe cleaner neurons. Photo courtesy of NW Noggin.

What types of events do you plan on hosting for this year’s Brain Awareness Week? 

BG:  We are out in our community talking brains and art pretty much year-round! But for Brain Awareness Week, we’re planning a road trip to the small eastern Washington community of Davenport.  We’ll bring brains and art projects into local schools and introduce our inspiring volunteers to ask what students know already, answer their great questions, and tell more young people about education and research opportunities, and the compelling work being done in art studios and labs.