Brain Awareness Week Open House celebrates curiosity, engagement and neuroscience education for K-12 students

Aleenah Ansari

The Brain Awareness Week Open House, organized by CNT Executive and Education Director, Eric Chudler, brings neuroscience to life every year for hundreds of elementary, middle and high school students from the Greater Seattle Area.

Many K-12 students learn about the brain and nervous system in their science coursework. However, most of these students don’t ever get the opportunity to talk to a neuroscientist and learn about his or her research. Founded by the Dana Foundation and the Society for Neuroscience, Brain Awareness Week promotes these kinds of unique interactions and encourages people of all ages, including K-12 students, to learn about the field of neuroscience and its applicability to everyday life.

“Everybody has some level of interest in the brain because everyone has one,” said David Perkel, a University of Washington (UW) professor in biology and otolaryngology, a medical specialty focusing on ear, nose and throat conditions. “Everybody wonders about [what] make us human.”

The UW hosted their Brain Awareness Week Open House on March 5 with the goal of creating space for conversation between researchers and 800 elementary, middle, and high school students, parents and teachers from the Greater Seattle Area.

“It’s great to empower people to learn how to conduct research and evaluate research,” said Elizabeth Crummy, a third-year PhD student in the UW Graduate Program in Neuroscience and member of Neuroscience Community Outreach. “Through outreach, we can start that process by first getting them [students] interested in what [scientists and researchers] are doing and communicate in a way they will understand.”

Eric Chudler, the executive director and education director for the CNT and research associate professor in the UW Department of Bioengineering, has been involved with planning Brain Awareness Week at the UW for 22 years and counting, but his mission for this event has remained the same: enable people to learn neuroscience on their own terms.

“Sometimes it takes a spark to start a student on the pathway to become a scientist or engineer,” Chudler said. “An open house like this can make that spark happen.”

Using interactive exhibits to teach neuroscience concepts

The event began with a student assembly where Chudler provided an overview of the field of neuroscience and the parts of the nervous system. Then, he went through some interactive visual illusions before inviting students to roam a range of exhibits. Exhibitors were hosted by organizations like the UW Medicine Memory and Brain Wellness Center, patient support groups like the Epilepsy Foundation, and the Pacific Science Center and their Brain Power exhibit.

Many of the exhibits introduced neuroscience concepts through interactive activities like building a pipe-cleaner neuron, experiencing sensory adaptation through goggles, or discovering emotional intelligence by listening to someone else play a xylophone and mimic the note by ear on their own keyboard.

“Kids are so smart, and they teach you as much as you teach them. You also realize you know a lot and how much you enjoy neuroscience by sharing your knowledge,” Crummy said. “It’s nice to have an event where we realize we can make an impact.”

Chudler said that Brain Awareness Week was an opportunity for students to learn about neuroscience in interactive ways. Throughout the event, students were talking to exhibitors and filling out worksheets for classes like anatomy and physiology,

“At the University Washington, we have access to specimens, equipment, and expertise of students and faculty who are doing research,” Chudler said. Some students even do sheep brain dissections before they get to college. “By coming to the UW, students can ask questions to the experts that are here and extend their learning outside of the classroom.”

Connecting students with resources and expertise

The event also offered opportunities to talk directly to researchers such as graduate students in the Neuroscience Community Outreach Group or researchers from David Perkel’s lab in the UW Department of Biology, which studies vocal learning in songbirds. To encourage kids to learn more, he had bird brains at his table, recordings of birds learning their songs, and a microscope with slides of bird brain tissue that show brain structure.

Chudler hoped that this event encouraged students to envision themselves in the field of neuroscience and look up to the undergraduate and graduate students as role models. It was also an opportunity to see themselves represented through female scientists or scientists of color.

“After the formal open house, I encourage students to tour the university and see what it’s like to be on a college campus,” Chudler said. “Hopefully, that will influence students to think, ‘I can be a scientist. I can be a university student. I can be a graduate student. By talking with students at the open house, exhibitors can let them know about the pathways they can take to be a scientist.”

Continuing the conversation about neuroscience

Students were able to take pamphlets and brochures with activities from the Dana Foundation so they could continue to share their knowledge about the field of neuroscience after the open house.

“Sometimes teachers say that a student got a book out of the library or did a special report about Alzheimer’s disease after learning about it at the open house,” Chudler said. “Success comes from motivating the students to learn more on their own.”

Crummy hoped that this event exposed students to the wide applicability of neuroscience research.

 “You might not have had all the resources, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be successful in science,” she said. “We hope to provide resources at an early age so we can give students some background, and hopefully encourage people to keep neuroscience in the back of their minds.”

The road to being a scientist may be a long one, but Perkel hoped that attendees feel like there’s a path into neuroscience.

“…Along the way, you can get to do what you love,” Perkel, who has been a scientist for over 30 years, said about his work as a researcher. “I still do what I love.”

For more information about the Brain Awareness Week Open House at the UW, contact Eric Chudler.