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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. Michael A. Burman, Ph.D., is a an associate professor at the University of New England in Maine, the K-12 outreach coordinator at its Center for Excellence in the Neurosciences, and also a member of the Dana Alliance.
Through the Center for Excellence in the Neurosciences (CEN) at the University of New England, you regularly work with students in grades K-12 to encourage interest in STEM disciplines. How do you expand this effort during Brain Awareness Week?
This is a great question. We really like doing outreach work. We think it’s important for both local K-12 students’ STEM education and for the long-term viability of our programs. Public support is critical for science and reaching out to the public helps raise awareness of the great things going on at the University of New England (UNE). However, Brain Awareness Week typically falls over our spring break, which makes staffing events somewhat challenging. Thus, we’ve adopted a two-fold approach. First, we engage in year-round outreach. Our 45-50 volunteers make an average of two visits a week to local schools throughout our academic year. These visits can range from a single classroom to seeing an entire 1,400 student school over the course of a day or two. This is really our “bread and butter.” We reached over 4,000 students last year in this way.
Second, we’ve adopted a “Brain Awareness Month” approach, where we try to stage some special activities on or near Brain Awareness Week. The hallmark activity recently has been UNE’s Brain Fair, which is about to occur for the third time. The brain fair is a community event that brings hundreds of kids and their families to campus. Although the overarching theme is brain safety, with demonstrations and a helmet fitting/giveaway, we also have a variety of activities involving neuroanatomy and nervous system function. These activities include sheep brain dissections, microscope work, human brain specimens, and more. Various UNE athletic teams also perform demonstrations highlighting motor learning and safety. This year, we’re adding a big focus on addiction and drugs of abuse. We think this is a highly relevant topic this year with both legalization of marijuana on the one hand and Maine’s (and the nation’s) overwhelming battle against opiate addiction occurring simultaneously.
Can you tell us about some of the Brain Awareness Week events that have been especially effective with students? Do you have a favorite event in particular?
We try to take a comprehensive approach to our outreach. We call this our “grow-up, grow-out” model, which involves a constantly improving curriculum. By growing up, we have lessons centered around a common theme (like brain safety or neuroanatomy) that increase in complexity and difficulty as they target older ages. For example, students complete a four-lobe coloring sheet in early elementary school and engage in an activity that matches each lobe with one of the senses or motor movement. In middle school, they conduct sheep brain dissections. In high school, they learn neuroanatomy on human specimens.
By “growing out,” we show how science becomes increasingly interdisciplinary as it becomes more complex. What starts as a hint that our choices affect our brain health in our elementary school curriculum, becomes an experiment examining the effects of drugs on daphnia magna in our middle and high school curricula. This involves chemistry, pharmacology, and statistics. The “physics” of concussion and the “psychology/biology” of learning can also be examined.
In terms of particularly successful activities, we believe that hands-on activities are the best. Middle school students tend to love our sheep brain dissections and “bugs-on-drugs” activity. I believe that seeing a human brain for the first time is a powerful and transformative experience that tends to enthrall high school students. Elementary and middle school students also enjoy engineering helmets for eggs, to keep them safe during a drop. We’re still working on the best way to assess our outreach, but have published some evidence that we’re having an impact on students’ interest in science. We hope to soon demonstrate effects on content knowledge also.
In past years, the University of New England hosted several creative exhibits—such as “Your Brain on Art”—that reached thousands of members of the general public. What are some new events that the local community can look forward to?
This year, during Brain Awareness Week itself, we are joining the 2nd annual Maine Science Festival. This is a relatively new endeavor that brings in thousands of visitors a day. Last year, we were overwhelmed as one volunteer and I led several hundred sheep brain dissections over the course of a day. This year, we are going big. We have over a dozen faculty, staff, and student volunteers hosting several events. First, we have a human neuroanatomy exhibit, in which visitors will take a self-guided tour through the nervous system. We’ve created informational posters and have about two-dozen different specimens, highlighting different aspects of the nervous system structure and function. Second, we have a “brain exploration station,” which hosts four different areas with hands-on activities. Visitors of all ages will engage in comparative neuroanatomy activities, microscope work, brain safety activities, and a variety of brain-related games. We are also hosting a panel discussion on the opiate epidemic, where a variety of experts will address different aspects of addiction and how it affects our communities. We’re super excited and expect thousands of visitors of all ages will be also.
When we spoke to fellow CEN colleague and Dana Alliance member Edward Bilsky last October, he mentioned that outreach programs have extended overseas to Morocco and Spain. Can you tell us more about what you’re doing to promote brain awareness abroad?
UNE has relatively recently launched a major international initiative, building a campus in Tangier, Morocco and forming a partnership in Seville, Spain. These campuses are designed to benefit our students by providing a health-science intensive experience in an international context–allowing our students to stay on track for graduation while having a meaningful cultural experience.
So far, our outreach in these areas has been fairly informal and largely student-led. We’ve had UNE students who’ve partnered with local schools in Morocco to work with Moroccan students with neurological disorders, such as Autism and Down syndrome. We’ve also had several students interested in chronic pain work in Morocco. These students volunteered in pain clinics and worked with local chronic pain support groups. Given the cultural aspects of both pain and various neurological disorders, both the students and the local groups gain a fair amount from these interactions.
Going forward, these are aspects we’d be interested in improving upon. There is a strong neuroscience presence in Seville, Spain. We are interested in forming research and outreach collaborations with scientists there. Any members of the Dana Alliance in the area are encouraged to reach out to us. Moreover, as our presence in Morocco grows, we will continue to integrate with the local community, perhaps reaching out to the primary and secondary schools there.