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Rae Nishi, Ph.D.
Professor, Neurological Sciences
University of Vermont
Dana Foundation: Much of your public outreach on the brain focuses on the K-12 student population in Vermont. Can you please explain the importance of targeting this age group?
Rae Nishi: The brain controls our behavior and the more that young students understand this, the more likely it is that they will internalize important life lessons such as “multitasking is a myth” and “studying while listening to loud music reduces learning” and “consuming drugs for fun messes up the chemistry of my brain.”
We do this to instill these important concepts in the general population and the best time is when they’re young because they are more open to learning new things. I consider it “icing on the cake” if we inspire any of these students to become neuroscientists.
DF: Every year, you bring neuroscience to rural schools in Vermont during Brain Awareness Week (BAW). Can you please tell us about these visits and who accompanies you?
RN: These visits are done with a combination of graduate students with a faculty member or graduate students alone. I occasionally go, but I really consider this an important grad student-driven activity that teaches the students how to teach and how to reach out.
DF: Do you return to the same schools each year? If so, have you noticed an increased interest in neuroscience among the students since your program started?
RN: We return to some of the schools each year. For example, we went to Cabot, which is in rural Vermont about 2 hrs from Burlington, for several years in a row, but we have not been systematic about gauging student interest. Wherever we go, we have really interested and engaged students, probably because of the novelty, and we get back very enthusiastic “thank you” notes.
DF: Some of the students you engage are in elementary school. What kinds of topics and activities are appropriate for this age group?
RN: The best activities for elementary school students are ones that illustrate simple concepts, engage the students in discussions, and are hands on. We start by handing out puzzles of the brain that everyone puts together (this settles them down). Then we show a picture and/or model of the brain and talk about the different parts (not too much detail). We might ask them questions about what they know about the brain. Then we will engage them in one activity. A particularly popular one uses red jelly beans of different flavors and focuses on smell and taste. We pass out two jelly beans to each student and ask them to perform this simple experiment: first pinch your nose and chew one jelly bean and count how many chews it takes to identify the flavor; then we ask them to do the same without pinching their noses. After the exercise we have the students report their “data,” and then we talk about what they discovered. Then we go back to the brain photo or model and talk about the part of the brain that was engaged during the activity.
DF: Another youth-focused program that you’re involved in is the Vermont Brain Bee. How many high school students participate in this competition and how are they tested?
RN: This was only the third year we did this and every year we have more students. This spring we had 23 students from 7 different high schools plus 3 home schooled students. We have them take a written test, a practical neuroanatomy exam and then there are two oral rounds. We also want to make it fun for them so we give them “brain tours” using fixed human brains and we have a keynote talk, which this year was about the benefits of exercise on mental health.
DF: You’re a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, which is committed to public outreach about the brain and brain research. What advice would you give to other Alliance members looking for ways to get involved in BAW?
RN: Take small steps by finding local schools. I particularly suggest finding schools with high enrollments in the federal hot lunch program, because this indicates a high number of underprivileged students. These schools tend to have fewer parents who work in higher education so they love the activities you can bring in. Elementary school teachers have more flexibility in their curriculum than high school teachers.