Monday, 11 May 2015

Brain Hats and Head Lice!

Have you ever wondered what goes on in the mind of the average 6 year old? If like me you had never given it much thought, then grab yourself a cup of tea, sit back and prepare to be enlightened by our recent experience.

Last month, to celebrate ‘Brain Awareness Week’ and as part of ‘Sheffield Festival of Science and Engineering’; a team of researchers from SITraN, delivered an afternoon of science workshops for Y2 & Y6 pupils at several local primary schools. 

The SITraN outreach team
It made me wonder how many primary school pupils grow up aspiring to be scientists. I know I didn’t. Science isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, I realise that, but I think it’s a shame that so many young people are never exposed to the world of scientific research. If I think back to my former 6 year old self and ponder the extent of my own experience back then, science was merely a lesson like maths and geography, not a career. In fact, I’d never met a scientist and it may not surprise you to learn that growing up in rural Wales, my sole ambition was to become a lady farmer. Much to the despair of my science loving parents! Although I’m sure I would have been able to locate the brain, maybe even tell you that it was encompassed within a hard bony mass known as the skull, I’m quite certain I would have had no idea what a researcher was, let alone a neuroscientist!

The session started with a little bit of background on the brain and its anatomy, followed by a brief overview of our work here at SITraN. In our attempt to get the students to obtain an understanding for the size of a single neuron, we asked them to name the smallest thing they could imagine. Having previously had answers such as ‘an atom’, we were pleasantly reminded how at this age, behaviour is still strongly influenced by experience; so when one pupil answered, ‘head lice’, I guess we weren’t all that surprised (even if it did leave a few of us scratching our heads for the rest of the afternoon)!

Following the initial presentation, we then split the students up into small groups for a series of brain centred workshops. For many of us it was the first time we had designed neuroscience based activities from scratch. Our activities ranged from arts and crafts - design your own neuron, to examining the different brain structures of small mammals and birds. I was part of a team focused on exploring the workings of the different senses. The pupils particularly enjoyed learning just how easy it is to trick your senses. This featured cups of brightly coloured flavoured water, several ‘feely boxes’ and lots of mind boggling optical illusions. 

Can colour influence your taste?

It is worth mentioning that scientists are no strangers to long hours and hard work, yet I think it is fair to say that we all came away in agreement about one thing; our new found respect for primary school teachers. There’s nothing quite like a group of boisterous 6 and 7 year olds on a Friday afternoon, recently fuelled up with a generous supply of cakes and biscuits; the word ‘relentless’ springs to mind. When the teacher yelled break time - it was music to our ears! 

Handprint neurons down to a fine art!

I think we were all overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response we experienced with the students. They engaged with each activity, making some very perceptive observations. Not to mention some of the questions we were asked – they certainly weren’t all that easy to answer!
As the school bell rang to signal that it was now officially the start of the weekend, we sighed with relief and watched as these energised ‘little youngsters’ ran off into the arms of their waiting parents. Standing on our weary legs, we couldn’t help but smile seeing all the colourful brain hats bobbing up and down amongst the flurry of people - our work here was done.

All in all, our science outreach programme was very enjoyable and we hope to repeat it again next year.

Heledd Brown-Wright 

Heledd is a 1st year PhD student investigating
G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs) as novel
drug targets in MND. Heledd is supervised by
Dr Richard Mead and is part of the Shaw
Research Group

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