by Rachel Griess
It's a no-brainer: Our minds distinguish humans from other animals.
The concept got real at Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins last week, when Colorado State University students and faculty offered a series of neuroscience presentations to help high-schoolers understand the brain and its functions.
At one educational station, high-schoolers observed formaldehyde-soaked brains from a fruit fly, goldfish, mouse, rat, sheep and human. They compared sizes and shapes, learning from CSU student volunteer Kelsy Wheeler that smooth brain surfaces indicate short-term memory and lack of thought process, while those with deep, squiggly ridges, called gyri and sulci, indicate stronger cognitive ability.
The human brain is in the latter category, and the specimen on display drew both squeamishness and fascination.
“The beauty of partnering with CSU is it offers us resources we can’t typically get our hands on,” said Michelle Bartholomew, a science teacher at Rocky Mountain High School. “How many people can say they’ve held a human brain?”
For the past 12 years, the CSU Department of Biomedical Sciences has annually offered the educational outreach as part of Brain Awareness Week, a worldwide effort meant to increase understanding about the importance of neuroscience. The department has established a new bachelor’s degree program in neuroscience that will welcome its first class of students in fall 2014.
On Thursday and Friday last week, dozens of CSU volunteers led Brain Awareness sessions at Rocky Mountain.
“The high school students get a unique opportunity to learn about specific aspects of neuroscience and also get to interact with undergraduate students, graduate students and faculty from CSU,” said Leslie Stone-Roy, an assistant professor in Biomedical Sciences. “Meanwhile, our undergraduate and graduate students get the opportunity to teach neuroscience to younger students in a small group setting.”
Many students in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences want to pursue careers in health and medicine, and successfully communicating scientific concepts will be critical for success, she said.
Some of the interactive presentations taught students about brain-related diseases and disorders.
“I’ve never learned about things like this before,” said Jason McCrary, a Rocky Mountain senior. “Instead of learning facts about a disorder or a disease, we can experience how they actually affect you.”
Nathan Byers, a graduate student in CSU Molecular, Cellular and Integrative Neurosciences, created a simulation for Alzheimer’s disease. He invited students to trace a star – but required the high-schoolers to use a mirror while observing their work in completing the drawing task.
Suddenly, a simple activity demanded intense concentration, and students laughed at the inexact results.
“It may be a simple simulation, but it helps us sort of experience what it means to have some of these disorders and how our brain plays a part in the simplest, everyday tasks,” said Cecilia Nelson, another Rocky Mountain senior.
Bartholomew, a lead organizer at the high school, said she wants to “show students just how important their brains are.”
“Almost everyone knows someone who has had diabetes or Alzheimer’s disease,” she noted. “Learning about these issues becomes more interesting when you are able to bring it to life.”