Ben Routhier never imagined brain cells could be so tiny.
As the 9-year-old squints through the eyepiece of a microscope for the first time, his exclamation echoes through the classroom.
“It’s like a whole bunch of black lines and black dots,” he murmurs, inspecting the preserved mouse neurons.
Routhier is part of a group of home-schooled students participating in “Brain Discovery,” an outreach program that aims to get kids excited about neuroscience. Washington University graduate students and researchers work closely with elementary students across the St. Louis region, using hands-on experiments to help them understand how the brain works.
The free program has reached more than 1,000 students in St. Louis since it began in 2015.
Brian Lananna, a neuroscience PhD student at Wash U and co-founder of Brain Discovery, said there is an “incredible need” for this type of program.
“This is not to the fault of the teachers, but science is usually taught in elementary schools as a series of facts in a textbook,” Lananna said. “Science is a lot more fun than that.”
In this session, the home-schooled students compare the mouse neurons to human cells. Their own cheek cells, to be exact.
Using toothpicks, they collect cells from the inside of their mouths and smear them on glass slides.
After looking at his cells through the microscope, one student raises his hand and announces they look like “dead yellow bugs.”
Wash U neuroscience Ph.D. student and program co-founder Claire Weichselbaum said they’re using neuroscience as a “gateway science.”
“Everybody has a brain and everybody’s inherently curious about how your brain lets you do all the things you do,” Weichselbaum said. “We feel like this is a really good way to get kids interested in science more broadly.”
Home-schooled students in the Brain Discovery program meet twice a year at a centralized location on the Wash U campus. Graduate student volunteers also travel to individual classrooms across the St. Louis area to reduce logistical challenges for elementary school teachers.
The grad students work with the students for six weeks, covering one big question in neuroscience each week, including ‘What’s your brain made of?’ and ‘How does it communicate with the rest of your body?’”
The program targets fourth- through sixth-graders, Weichselbaum said, because research points to this period as a critical phase of identity formation.
“Around that age, kids start to feel like, ‘I’m not a science person, I can’t do science,’” she said. “We’re trying to grab their interest and maintain it through the middle school years, so kids aren’t turning away from science.”
Teachers and homeschoolers with students in fourth- through sixth-grade can apply online to join the Brain Discovery program.
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