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.

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