By: Nick Santangelo

Drawing inside the lines is harder than it sounds. At least, it is when you’re looking into a mirror at a reverse image of the lines you’re supposed to draw inside of. But that’s all just part of the plan for assistant professors David Waxler and Mansi Shah from the College of Liberal Arts’ (CLA) Psychology Department and Neuroscience Program, respectively.

This was one of several brain-focused activities the professors brought with them last week to Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts and William W. Bodine High School to celebrate Brain Awareness Week. Thirty volunteers, including CLA students, lab technicians and faculty members hosted the event for the approximately 100 high school students who participated.

It’s important for science to be accessible to students

Brain Awareness Week in Philadelphia was originally held at the Franklin Institute before, but Prof. Waxler saw an opportunity at high schools last year.

“Neuroscience is one of those things that tends to be somewhat underrepresented in K through 12,” he says. “In school, most of us remember learning about the parts of a cell and the circulatory system but not as much about the nervous system. As neuroscientists and people who really enjoy talking about the brain, the nervous system and psychology, we’d like to see the kids be exposed to more of it.”

Dr. Shah feels the best way to do that is letting CLA students take the lead during Brain Awareness Week. With high school students interacting with and asking questions of psychology and neuroscience majors close to their age, it’s easy for the kids to imagine themselves studying brain science. It’s common during outreach events for high school students to ask questions about what college is like, what it’s like to study science and even to discuss interesting science-relevant books they’ve been reading. In this way, Brain Awareness Week allows Temple students to take the lead in engaging with students in the surrounding community.

“It’s important for science to be accessible to students,” says Dr. Shah, “for high school students to realize it can be engaging and fun and they can understand it. It's not something out of their reach and if it's something they want to pursue it doesn't matter where they’re from or what their background is. It's something they can actually attain.”

Prof. Waxler agrees that letting the kids work directly with CLA students is the best way to form connections and get them passionate about the science. He also sees it as beneficial to CLA students who often realize just how much they’ve learned once they start answering the kids’ questions. Plus, adds Dr. Shah, it shows the kids what the step between enrolling in college and entering a career looks like. They see the growth and learning process, not just the end result.

As part of making those connections and fostering that passion, the volunteers set up six activity stations, with every station having its own neuroscience related theme: motor functions, sensation and perception, comparative neuroanatomy, cognitive assessment, EEG, and tricking the brain.

Temple's invested in teaching them really cool things

One new activity had students looking at a rubber hand being stroked with a paint brush at the same time as their actual hand was. After a minute or two, students began to feel as if the rubber hand was their own. Another involved dissolving “miracle berry” tablets in their mouths, which fooled the taste buds into thinking foods were sweet when they were actually sour. Finally, a thermal grill with alternating warm and cool bars tricked kids’ brains into thinking they were actually burning hot.

“The reason we picked these demonstrations, is we knew the kids were going to get a jolt out of it. They were going to go, ‘Wow!’” says Prof. Waxler. “With the thermal grill, we knew they would dare each other to touch it. But it's also something we can explain in a few minutes.  For example, how our perception of hot and cold doesn’t always match the actual temperature of the object we are touching.”

Prof. Waxler says that making the activities fun is another way to help give kids the push they need to explore an education in a science they might have otherwise never been exposed to. “There’s so much exciting information that we’ve learned about the brain in just the last decade,” says Dr. Shah, “and Brain Awareness Week gives us the opportunity to share these discoveries with the broader Philadelphia community.”

“In the future when they're deciding on colleges, I think it's important for them to know that Temple's right in their community,” she says, “that Temple's invested in teaching them really cool things and that they should consider this as a really great institution that they can be at.”

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