UA, ASU team on PHX program for Little Brainiacs

March 19, 2009

By hammersmith

“Who wants to touch a sheep’s brain?” asked Heather Bimonte-Nelson, assistant professor at Arizona State University. Most of the 34 second-graders’ hands shot into the air to begin a new program developed by faculty members from The University of Arizona and ASU. 

For one hour, boys and girls from the Children First Academy (formally Thomas J. Pappas School) participated in “Little Brainiacs” at the Children’s Museum of Phoenix.

Dressed in small white lab coats, the students peered into microscopes, sliced real sheep brains and wrapped each other in plastic wrap to understand the concept of myelin (a soft, white, fatty material in the membrane of certain brain cells).

“I want students to know there is a way out, to know there are options out there for them to grow and be whatever they dream and that knowledge is power,” said Bimonte-Nelson, an assistant professor of psychology in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “They are in charge of their body, their behavior, their brain. They have the power to make decisions about their lives. If they see this and understand that not just science, but learning, can be fun, then we could affect their path in life in a positive way and impact their future.”

Bimonte-Nelson’s partner in this endeavor, Ron Hammer, a professor of basic medical sciences and pharmacology at the UA College of Medicine-Phoenix, watched over 7-year-olds during the recent museum session as they picked up a plastic model of the brain.

“This is a great way to introduce brain biology to early learners,” Hammer said. “It is wonderful to see the spark in young minds when they realize how much fun learning can be.”

The two faculty members developed the session as an opportunity to expose young students to the wonders of science – particularly important when science curriculum is a luxury under the challenging budgets of K-12 education.

“Partnering with ASU and UA on this important program has been a perfect fit,” said Deb Gilpin, the museum’s president and chief executive officer. “This is really what the Children’s Museum of Phoenix is all about … opening up possibilities for all children through hands-on, engaging and educational programs that are fun.”

Second-grade teachers Sarah Smith and Stephanie Jenkins couldn’t agree more.

“This is a rare opportunity for these kids,” Smith said. “This could be an ‘aha’ moment when they realize that they can be a scientist when they grow up.”

At a nearby table, several students donned rubber gloves to touch sheep brains while hearing terms like “neuroscientist,” “college,” “knowledge and power,” “neurons” – some for the first time. Under careful supervision they used small scalpels to dissect the materials and then viewed it under a microscope.

Fascination and curiosity beat out squeamishness as the kids traded microscope slides and questioned several older students in the neuroscience club from the nearby College of Medicine-Phoenix, known officially as the College of Medicine-Phoenix in partnership with ASU.

“It is great to see the medical students here, asking the kids what they want to be when they get older,” Jenkins said. “Some kids might say, ‘Hey, this is really cool, I want to be a scientist.'”

Bimonte-Nelson and Hammer led the group in shouting out different lobes of the brain and their function. As the session neared the end, the kids were reluctant to remove their white lab coats. Each child received a certificate and a pencil with a brain eraser.

The pencils, lab coats, microscopes and other supplies were purchased with funds from a Woodside Community Service Award that Bimonte-Nelson received last year, and support from the ASU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the psychology department.

Pretty heady stuff.