Scientists from Brown show local K-12 students the beauty of the brain

Brown students and faculty were among the Brain Week Rhode Island volunteers who brought plastic brains, interactive activities and lots of neuroscience knowledge to schools around the state.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] —  When Nadira Yusif-Rodriguez heard the buzz that Brain Week Rhode Island’s K-12 classroom visits would happen again this year after a COVID-driven hiatus, she knew immediately how she’d be spending the months of February and March.

“I was like, ‘Oh yeah, it is time!” she said. “These kids are going to have a blast learning about the brain!”

A postdoctoral research associate in neuroscience at Brown University, Yusif-Rodriguez was one of many Brain Week volunteers who had as much fun during the brain-themed local classroom visits as the students.

Each spring, brain scientists ranging from first-year undergraduates to world-class faculty researchers, from Brown and other universities, fan out to Rhode Island public schools to drop some neuroscience knowledge and teach kids about the beauty of brains. During hourlong classroom visits, the volunteers lead interactive demonstrations and run educational games that encourage hands-on learning. They also share nuggets of wisdom about careers in neuroscience, discuss their own research, bust brain myths and answer questions about the mysterious mechanisms of the mind.

On a recent Friday afternoon at Vartan Gregorian Elementary School in Providence, volunteers from the lab of Matt Nassar, a Brown assistant professor of neuroscience affiliated with the Carney Institute, cheerfully corralled more than 40 kindergarteners into the school’s STEAM Room — an innovative learning space built with support from Brown in 2022. Groups of curious kids launched into activities that ranged from old-fashioned coloring to a bean bag toss with prism goggles to a demonstration of an EEG that measured kids’ brain activity when they blinked or jumped.

With one group of about 10 kids huddled around closely, Nassar and Yusif-Rodriguez used brain-shaped puzzle pieces to show how different parts of the brain work and fit together. The children peppered the volunteers with questions and after the session was through, were eager to share what they’d picked up.

“You need certain parts of the brain to help you do stuff!” shared one attentive participant.

“The back of the brain sends messages to the front!” said another budding brain scientist.

The classroom visits are part of Brain Week Rhode Island, a multi-institution educational effort held annually in March that includes brain fairs, presentations, performances and other events. Brain Week is the brainchild of Victoria Heimer-McGinn, who launched the program in 2016 when she was a postdoctoral neuroscience researcher at Brown; now, as an assistant professor of psychology at Roger Williams University, she serves as chair of the organization.

The Brain Week mission includes three goals, Heimer-McGinn said: Educate about brain science and brain health, inspire the next generation of scientists and showcase the neuroscience work happening in Rhode Island.

“The school visits are at the core of what we do,” she said. “We show kids from K-12 that the brain isn’t a scary mystery, but that it’s really fun to learn about, and might even be a viable career option for them.”

The school visits also help to build interest in the week’s brain fairs — free, all-ages cerebral celebrations which this year were held at Brown and in Pawtucket. The fairs are meant to be the week’s culminating events, but this year, additional schools kept asking to be added to the classroom visits lists, which extended Brain Week through the full month of March.

Heimer-McGinn has long helped to train classroom visit volunteers, who are undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and faculty from Brown, the University of Rhode Island, Roger Williams University and Bryant University. The lesson plan, which covers anatomy, brain health and psychology, was originally developed by John Stein, a distinguished senior lecturer in neuroscience at Brown who is affiliated with the Carney Institute. It has been adapted for different grade levels and classroom sizes.

When Brain Week was first gaining a foothold, Heimer-McGinn made it her mission to recruit scientists and scholars who could bring the wonders of the brain to life. This year, more than 30 students from Brown volunteered, and the same team helped to organize Brown participation at the brain fairs. Classroom visit organizers at Brown, including Yusif-Rodriguez, second-year Ph.D. student Gabriela Molica, and third-year Ph.D. student Hannah Doyle, worked with the other universities to coordinate visits to 15 schools across the state, including elementary, middle and high schools.

Because of the pandemic, in-person Brain Week events have been on hold since 2019, but Molica said the annual brain science celebration has been on her radar since she applied to Brown.

“I got involved this year because I was very excited that they were coming back, and I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to help restore them to their glory,” Molica said. “The neuroscience department's involvement in outreach activities like these is part of the reason why I chose to come to Brown for my Ph.D.” 

Yusif-Rodriguez has volunteered with Brain Week since 2017, when she started graduate school at Brown and met Heimer-McGinn. As a child, Yusif-Rodriguez had always been interested in science, but didn’t have much exposure to neuroscience. She initially studied psychology in college because she wanted to understand the human brain, until a mentor encouraged her to explore neuroscience instead. Yusif-Rodriguez is now passionate about sharing her love of all things brain science with the next generation.

“I’ve always thought: How much would I know right now if, when I was in elementary school, somebody told me ‘Hey, this is a brain, and these are all the things it can do,’” Yusif-Rodriguez said. “That was my motivation to get involved with Brain Week. We have really enthusiastic people at Brown who care so much about making neuroscience accessible.”