Brain Awareness Week Partner Interview: Kyle Frantz, Ph.D.

March 9, 2015

This is the first in a series of Brain Awareness Week (BAW) partner interviews, in which partners share their BAW experiences and tips for planning successful events. Kyle Frantz, Ph.D., is a professor and science educator in the Neuroscience Institute and department of biology at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

Dana Foundation: You’ve helped organize the “52 Weeks of Brain Awareness” programming in Atlanta, Georgia for many years now. Are there any new developments planned for Brain Awareness Week (BAW) in March?

Frantz side_cropped
Photo credit: Meg Buscema, Georgia State University

Kyle Frantz: Our frequent poster title “52 Weeks of Brain Awareness” in Atlanta reveals our approach to sharing enthusiasm about the brain and behavior year round. We engage tried-and-true, as well as novel, programs, events, and lesson plans every year.

One of our hot endeavors this year is the second annual city-wide Atlanta Science Festival, founded in part by long-time brain awareness supporter, Jordan Rose of Emory University’s Center for Science Education. Literally thousands of visitors will touch a human brain at festival events (carefully, and with gloves, of course)! A captivating new lesson plan we are implementing in several programs uses the Roboroach from Backyard Brains to control cockroach movements remotely by microstimulation of their antenna nerves. We’re working with local experts Chris Goode, LizAnn Amadei, and David Nicholson to wow audiences with these critters and enable participants to design experiments based on this technology. New developments like these are usually based on audience feedback, presenter interests, and ideas from collaborators and neuroscience educators around the world.

Our long-standing programs in Atlanta include BRAIN and ION, intensive summer research programs for motivated undergraduates and outstanding high school students and teachers, respectively; our classroom-visits program reaching thousands of K-12 students each spring; and our regional Brain Bee. Much of our work, launched in collaboration with Laura Carruth, is part of the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience (CBN), an inter-institutional consortium of neuroscience programs in metro-Atlanta. Collaborations with organizations such as the Atlanta Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience (led by recent Presidents Kim Huhman and Larry Young), Zoo Atlanta, and the Fernbank Museum of Natural History have been critical to our success in connecting with wide audiences in our metropolitan region. All of our programs use the models and materials housed in our Dana-supported Lending Library of Teaching Resources.

DF: The Georgia State University program reaches out to a wide range of students from grades K-12; is there a specific approach to educating the different age groups?

KF: From our 2006 CBE-LSE study (Zardetto-Smith et al. 2006), we know that our scientist-volunteers tailor their teaching on the fly to suit any age or stage of learner we encounter. Definitely we have topics we like best for different age groups, such as sensory systems for the littlest learners and experimental design for high schoolers. Yet most of our activities are flexible. For example, to coax high school seniors into the love of brain anatomy and function, we are teaching our classic build-a-brain lesson plan this year with a zombie twist–design a zombie brain out of modeling clay, describe the brain parts it’s missing, and tell the “back story” on how it came alive after death. Teaching and learning need to be fun for everyone.

DF: Do you have any advice for students pursuing a career in neuroscience?

KF: Find a productive and satisfying balance between independent goals and community stewardship. In order to establish a career in neuroscience, you’ve got to hold ample time to focus on your own coursework, research, and professional development. Yet if no one made time to establish community partnerships for K-12, teacher, and public education, then science would stagnate with no real thinkers for tomorrow. It’s important for you to do both, in a way that works for you. And take data in both situations–basic research and education programs–so that you can report seriously on all your projects.

Renewing the Proclamation of Brain Awareness Month in the State of Georgia with local neuroscience educators.
Renewing the Proclamation of Brain Awareness Month in the State of Georgia with local neuroscience educators.

DF: This year marks the 20th anniversary of BAW. As a long-time organizer, what are your thoughts on how it has evolved over the years? Do you think BAW has been effective in increasing the general public’s understanding and awareness of developments in neuroscience?

KF: Brain Awareness Week has been especially impressive in global reach. The growing number of partners on all continents speaks to the widespread enthusiasm for studying the brain, the nervous systems, and their disorders. Coupled with major national initiatives such as the Decade of the Brain and the BRAIN Initiative, Brain Awareness Week has helped the United States public and policy-makers set and launch “moonshot” projects in neuroscience. Public interest and awareness are confirmed by the popularity of media portrayals of neuroscience-related disorders and technologies, as well as increased advocacy and safety against traumatic brain injury, addiction, and other “preventable” neural insults. The future likely holds more neuroscience in national science curricula, as well as great integration of Brain Awareness Week campaign efforts into social media, games, and apps. We hope to continue to help the Dana Foundation lead the way.