Thursday, March 26, 2009

Brain Awareness Week 2009 Redux

Last week's Brain Awareness Week events were successful within my school community; based on conversations that I overheard or that people initiated with me, the brain was most certainly "on the mind" more than usual. Brain Awareness Week 2009 marks the second consecutive year that I've participated in the event, and while there are still a few things that didn't quite come together this year, I'm satisfied with the growth that this year's work represents over last. In 2008 my contribution was a single talk at our school assembly, during which I gave a brief overview of the anatomy and physiology of the brain and reviewed a few of the medical applications for neuroscience research (if memory serves, I believe I focused on Parkinson's and artificial limbs). In 2009 I expanded my work at school by speaking at two assemblies, and brought my part of the BAW movement into the digital realm by writing a blog post on neuroscience educational resources available online for no charge, and by using the #BAW hash-tag on Twitter when I posted updates related to the event.

My first talk at school this year focused on:
  • My path from studying Neuroscience as an undergraduate to developing teaching and education research skills in graduate school, which has informed my view of the classroom as a neuro-psych lab of sorts
  • Reading the recent article in the New York Times entitled "In One Ear and Out the Other" which relates humor, memory, and the brain and demonstrates how current and inter-connected brain science is with other disciplines.
My second talk focused on:
  • The NYT article's claim that working memory is a limiting factor in cognition that resists improvement. I talked about how there are limitations, but like many things, individuals have a range of function that can be enhanced by practice. I mentioned the research on "n-back" exercises to improve working memory, and a few of the "brain training" applications that follow the n-back format. Brain Workshop is free, open source software that runs on Windows / Mac / Linux. IQ Boost costs in the neighborhood of $5 and runs on the iPhone / iPod Touch.
  • The tragic death of Natasha Richardson from an epidural hematoma caused by a head injury she sustained in a skiing accident. I talked about the importance of wearing a helmet and my simple rule for when to wear one: whenever your body has the potential to move faster than it could on its own two legs.
I had hoped this year to get some students involved in Brain Awareness Week, but I only put out the call a week in advance, and although there were a few students who expressed some interest, other commitments and the short time frame prevented them from participating. My goals for Brain Awareness Week 2010 (and others in the future) include:
  • Getting students involved:
  1. Start planning a few months in advance, maybe even at the beginning of next school year. Maybe the club / group could be called "The Brain Stormers".
  2. Develop a "play" to act out the events that occur at the synapse to demonstrate how neurons process information.
  3. Have students do some research on a brain-related topic and create some posters to hang up around the school.
  4. Have students read some "brain facts" at assembly.
  • Getting faculty involved, perhaps by offering some professional development sessions on how understanding the brain could improve teaching in their discipline.
  • Getting the community involved, perhaps by offering an evening session on age-related brain issues or on concussions and sports safety.
  • Bringing in a guest speaker, perhaps a college / university professor who does research in neuroscience, or another professional who works in a brain-related field.
All things considered, celebrating Brain Awareness Week has thus far required only a bit of time and effort and seems to have paid off nicely in terms of bringing attention to the central role that the brain plays in many aspects of our lives. I'd be thrilled to hear about how others, particularly in school settings, have celebrated BAW, and to work with you to coordinate efforts for the future.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Presentation on Standards 2.0

This past Friday I spoke at the 29th annual meeting for Maine's High School Physics and Physical Science Teachers, held at the University of Maine. I was invited to speak by my M.S.T. thesis advisor, Dr. Michael Wittmann, to present some of the work I've been leading at my current school to refine our standards-based system for curriculum and grading. It was a great honor to be invited and to have the opportunity to spend the day working with teachers from all around the state. Other speakers included Michael Dudley, a Physics teacher at North Central Charter Essential School, and Craig Kesselheim, a Senior Associate at Great Schools Partnership. Mike presented on his experience implementing the Intuitive Quantum Physics curriculum developed collaboratively at UMaine by Dr. Wittmann and other folks in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and at the Center for Science and Mathematics Education Research. Craig presented an overview of the work coordinated by the Great Schools Partnership, including development of networks of schools to promote good practice and their iWalkthrough software that facilitates collecting and visualizing data from short, protocol-based classroom observations.

I've embedded below the presentation I developed for the conference - I hope that some of the attendees will come back to view it here, and that other educators here in Maine or elsewhere might find some of the information within of value. One of the more validating aspects of my work on Friday was the opportunity to speak with other educators who've been working within a standards-based system for nearly as long as my current school; although the details of these systems vary, the issues that arise over time tend to have lots of similarity. We all agreed that the standards-based approach does have some benefits, but that we need to work toward minimizing some of the emergent difficulties if the standards-based reform hypothesis is to be supported in the long-term.

(Please note that if you're reading this post in a RSS feed reader, the embedded presentation below may not show up, click through to the web page to view if so inclined.)

Friday, March 6, 2009

Prepping for Brain Awareness Week 2009

Each year The Dana Foundation and The Society for Neuroscience sponsor Brain Awareness Week. BAW 2009 is coming up soon: March 16 - 22. I'll be organizing a presentation at a school-wide assembly once again this year, and am hoping to go further by getting some students involved with making some posters about the brain and related issues to put up around the building. This year I'd also like to extend my contribution to Brain Awareness Week into the "blogosphere" by pointing you to some of the great - free - educational resources that are available for those who want to learn more about the brain.

iTunes University (requires iTunes)
MIT Open Courseware - Brain and Cognitive Sciences
Other Web Resources
I hope you'll find these resources interesting and valuable. I'd also be very interested in hearing from any readers who might be inspired to celebrate Brain Awareness Week at your school / organization.