Medical Museum's 14th Annual Brain Awareness Week Program Gets Students Using Their Brains

March 27, 2013, Silver Spring, Md.: At the National Museum of Health and Medicine's (NMHM) 14th annual Brain Awareness Week (BAW), students were encouraged to not only use their brains for learning, but to also hold real brain specimens and, in some cases, experience first-hand how their brains react to certain stimuli.

The event, which was held for the first time at the Museum's new location in Silver Spring, was attended by approximately 600 students from more than a dozen different schools around the Washington, D.C., area. Brain Awareness Week at NMHM is presented each year in conjunction with the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives.

NMHM's Brain Awareness Week activities took place over the course of five days—March 11-15, 2013—in the Museum's lobby and galleries. After a brief introductory talk on the Museum's brain collection each day, students rotated through hands-on activity stations to learn about different brain functions, influences on the brain and brain disorders. Stations were managed by the Museum's Partners in Education (listed in full below) representing the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, Howard University College of Medicine and Rutgers University.

Activities ranged from learning about the weak electric field of an elephant nose fish produces from scientists representing the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program to trying on a pair of "fatal vision goggles," which mimicked the effects of being under the influence of alcohol, at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism's station.

The week started with a visit from the Society for Neuroscience (SFN), the world's largest organization of scientists and physicians devoted to understanding the brain and nervous system. Dr. Alicia Torres, senior director of communications and public affairs for SFN, presented the Museum with two framed proclamations— one from Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and another from Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent C. Gray— declaring it Brain Awareness Week in Maryland and Washington, D.C.

"In sharing what we know about the brain, scientists can engage young people in ways that inspire them to explore unanswered questions and perhaps fuel an interest in scientific pursuit," SFN President Larry W. Swanson said about the importance of Brain Awareness Week. "The Society is pleased to be part of the museum's Brain Awareness Week event, which is one of the many thousands of programs underway around the world."

At its activity station, three Ph.D. students from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences taught middle school students about neurons by asking them to construct models of the nerve cells out of small Styrofoam balls, colorful pipe cleaners and beads.

Eric Prager, who has participated in Brain Awareness Week at NMHM for four years, said the activity allowed students to be creative, while also teaching them about the importance and function of neurons.

"We chose to have them build neurons because that is the basic building block of the brain," he said. "It was our goal to teach the kids what neurons are, how they are different from other cells in the body, and how they transmit information. By having students build the neuron themselves and, more importantly, to learn the different structures of a neuron, we knew they would be able to retain this knowledge and be able to tell their parents about how the neuron is different from other cells."

Prager added that he always enjoys taking part in BAW and strives each year to improve his station.

"I come back [each year] because I want to help provide children with opportunities that I did not have for myself growing up," he said. "We did not have BAW or events to study the brain. I want to be able to give back to the community, and help educate the public about why it is so important to study the brain and its mechanisms."

Other activity stations, such as the Museum's own station, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke's station, and Howard University College of Medicine, Department of Physiology and Biophysics' station, invited students to touch and hold human and animal brain specimens.

As she watched her students hold a human brain from the Museum's Neuroanatomical Collection, Katie Mischenko, a science teacher at Blessed Sacrament School in Washington, D.C., said the BAW program lined up perfectly with her unit on the brain.

"It's so relevant and it's so important for students to learn about their brains," she said, noting her students would be performing an animal brain dissection at the end of the week. "This program does a great job of making learning about the brain fun."

Andrea Schierkolk, NMHM public programs manager and BAW coordinator, said she is pleased with how the event went this year.

"Engaging interactions between middle school students and neuroscientists resulted in many unforgettable memories," she said, "My hope is that programs like Brain Awareness Week will inspire a new generation of neuroscientists who will take on challenges like traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress."

Archie Fobbs, collections manager for NMHM's Neuroanatomical Collection, said he also hopes students left with a better understanding of how the brain functions.

"I hope the students learned how the brain empowers them and shapes them as individuals, and how dedicated neuroscientists are to the discipline of neuroscience and to the education of young people," he said.

National Brain Awareness Week programs were first established by the Dana Alliance in 1996, linking scientists, clinicians, journalists and other educators in an annual effort to raise public awareness about the brain and brain science. In 2000, Dana joined forces with NMHM to develop a program designed especially for middle school students. Brain Awareness Week has helped instill a sense of excitement of science, while bringing awareness and understanding of current research and its translation into clinical practice to young audiences.

NMHM Partners in Education for the 2013 Brain Awareness Week: Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, Howard University, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institute on Aging, National Eye Institute, National Institute of Mental Health, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development, Audiology and Speech Pathology Center, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC), Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs/USAMRMC, National Cancer Institute and Rutgers University.