The University of Colorado Boulder is at the forefront of research on the role of healthy lifestyle choices in the prevention and treatment of illnesses related to the brain. Now an interdisciplinary group of researchers and students have put their heads together to create a program that brings neuroscience lessons and demonstrations into local classrooms to empower elementary students to take charge of their mental and physical health.
From the impact of exercise on protecting and enhancing brain function to the role of sleep in early childhood development, CU-Boulder research findings underscore the impact of healthy behaviors on the brain. The purpose of this program, titled “Bringing Cutting-edge Neuroscience Research to the Classroom to Improve Public Health,” is to pass this research on to the broader community.
Launched in 2013, the program sends a team of CU-Boulder undergraduates into area classrooms to teach children and adolescents about the brain through a series of fun and engaging activities and exercises.
The activities build on the research conducted by researchers from the CU-Boulder Intermountain Neuroimaging Consortium. Led by Marie Banich, professor of psychology and neuroscience, and Monique LeBourgeois, assistant professor of integrative physiology, the program draws on diverse expertise from more than a dozen consortium investigators spanning multiple departments and institutes.
Similarly, the program attracts CU-Boulder students from across campus and a wide variety of majors and departments— education, philosophy, computer science, engineering, integrative physiology, biology, and psychology and neuroscience. The students gain experience bringing scientific research findings to public awareness and help develop the classroom activities.
“The CU-Boulder students are playing an important role by devising new, creative, and innovative methods to demonstrate ideas about brain function,” Banich said. “They help bring the concepts to life in ways that the children in school can understand. The CU-Boulder students also act as ambassadors for science, bringing their enthusiasm for the subject matter to school children who might think science is stodgy or ‘not fun.’”
The curriculum focuses on a basic, age-appropriate understanding of how the brain works. Then elementary students learn about the effects of lifestyle choices on brain development and mental health. Activities range from building pipe cleaner neurons to studying food labels for added sugar to learn about impact of nutrition on brain development.
Nicole Speer, the project coordinator, and Janie Routh, a graduate student assistant from the School of Education, lead undergraduate training and fine tuning of the school curriculum based on feedback from teachers and undergraduate teaching assistants. Now in its second year, the program organizers continue to hone in on what resonates in the classroom.
“The undergraduates came up with some brilliant modifications to our activities from last year, ” Speer said. “One student designed a modified ski helmet to act as a ‘brain recording’ helmet that allows kids ‘see’ what their brains are doing on a computer screen. I am so proud of all the work they do.”
The curriculum also incorporates bilingual, take-home materials for students and teachers, extending the lessons beyond the classroom and to their families. With support from a CU-Boulder Outreach Award, the program aims to reach a total of 600 kids and at least 25 local classrooms, approximately two-thirds of which are classrooms in Title 1 schools serving lower-income students.
In turn, the program provides an opportunity for the CU-Boulder researchers to assess their research and its impact on the public.
“Thinking about how to present information in a new manner to a new audience always makes me re-evaluate what I think is important about work in my field,” Banich said. “In addition, it is satisfying because such projects force me to look at research about the brain from a new vantage point because I am trying to see how someone else would understand it — it helps me discover something new in what I already knew.”