Brain Awareness Week reaches out to students

Bryan Keogh

As the “decade of the brain” winds down, the University is gearing up for the decade’s last Brain Awareness Week.
The annual event beginning March 15 is organized nationally by the Society for Neurology and the Dana Alliance, which is composed of more than 185 neuroscientists, including seven Nobel laureates.
At the University, faculty and students from the neuroscience graduate program travel to various grade schools in the area to teach children about the wonders of the brain.
“We anticipate visiting approximately 38 schools and seeing over 4,000 students,” said Mary Page, the graduate program’s coordinator for Brain Awareness Week.
Faculty and University students will be traveling in pairs to about 135 classrooms in the area and giving presentations, consisting of interactive demonstrations of brain functions and a presentation of an actual human brain.
One of the volunteers, Shannon Wright, said she is very excited that she will soon be able to don her pink “brain hat” and pass on her enthusiasm about neuroscience and love for learning to a bunch of eager-to-learn fifth- and sixth-graders in local schools.
Wright, a graduate student and self-proclaimed “brain lady,” is in her fourth year of volunteering with Brain Awareness Week.
“It is a ball,” she said as she talked about her own collection of brains she will be taking along with her, which includes a dog brain, a Guinea pig brain and a sheep brain.
“At the end of the hour, and the hour just flies by in like three seconds, we have a session with the brains where the kids sit at a table and I have all my brains around, and they’re just hovering over me asking questions,” Wright said enthusiastically.
Keith Kajander, associate professor in the Department of Oral Sciences, said the main purpose of Brain Awareness Week “is to bring information about the brain and nervous system in general, but specifically about the brain, to children K through 12 … around the state of Minnesota.”
This year, Brain Awareness Week comes only months after the formation of the Department of Neuroscience at the University.
The department is “a major stepping stone in providing visibility for neuroscience,” said Dr. Timothy Ebner, who was named head of the department in December.
Ebner said the department, which will officially open up July 1, will begin with 25 faculty members and hopes to add another eight to 10 faculty in the next five years.
“We’re in this growth phase so it’s very exciting,” he added.
Since Brain Awareness Week’s inception in 1996, more than 23,000 students in Minnesota have received first-hand experience with the brain and its functions.
In the first year, 4,000 students, teachers and private citizens came to the “Brain Fair” in Coffman Union to see demonstrations, skits and have lunch.
In 1997, more than 124 volunteers went out from the University to area schools. More than 75 schools and 11,000 children in grades four through eight were reached.
Brain Awareness Week emphasizes the study of neuroscience, which is the study of the nervous system and its functions. One of the obvious goals of neuroscience, according to Kajander, “is to figure out what is behavior. We think it has to do with the six layers of the cerebral cortex.”