Grant used to promote science with youth

by Sean Madigan

Some researchers in the science community fear interest in general science is beginning to fade among middle school students. But several University researchers hope a $300,000 national grant will help educators stimulate some 10,000 young Minnesotan minds throughout the state.
The University’s Medical School is one of 35 biomedical research institutions that received a three-year grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute with the promise to enrich neuroscience education. The grant will create support for a partnership between the Medical School and the Science Museum of Minnesota.
The educational partnership will branch out to young people in greater Minnesota and the urban cores of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Larry Thomas, the museum’s director of school outreach, said bringing science to schools is becoming more necessary as students get older. Many schools can’t afford the cost of busing or taking students out of classes for an entire day. For rural students, distance between the museum and the school makes taking field trips difficult.
“These are kids who don’t normally have access to University scientists and the science museum, which typically attract a more suburban crowd,” said Cyndy Hanson, director of community relations for the Medical School and co-author of the grant.
For the first year, coordinators from the museum, the Medical School and the neuroscience department will plan the project in hope that a program will be in place by the summer of 2000.
Medical School faculty will invite Minnesota teachers to the University for a weeklong seminar on science education. In turn, participating teachers and their students will receive a visit from the “brain mobile,” a traveling presentation on neuroscience, conducted by educators from both the University and the science museum.
Students will participate in a series of hands-on demonstrations and exhibits on various brain functions like vision and reflexes. Each school will also be given a trunk full of neuroscience resource materials for the classroom.
Dr. Tim Ebner, a University researcher studying motor control and the program’s director, said nurturing students’ natural curiosity about neuroscience is not difficult.
“Kids realize it’s the stuff in their heads that make them what they are,” Ebner said.
Ebner explained one activity that will ask students to throw darts at a target while wearing a pair of glasses with prism lenses that reverse their vision. The activity will demonstrate the brain’s ability to adapt and adjust.
The program is an outgrowth of National Brain Awareness Week and the University’s Brain Bee. The Brain Bee — a spelling bee-like trivia competition for high school students — was organized by former University researcher Keith Kajander.
Kajander died of a cocaine overdose in May; he studied the narcotic in his research on pain. Investigators were unable to determine if the cocaine in Kajander’s bloodstream was from his laboratory. Hanson said the circumstances surrounding Kajander’s death did not affect the funding for the education grant.
“I’m really sad,” Hanson said. “I would have loved to work with Keith on this. He was so energetic.”