Office for University Outreach

ABCs, 123s and Frontal Lobes: Neuroscientists Share Research with Kindergartners

ABCs, 123s and Frontal Lobes: Neuroscientists Share Research with Kindergartners University of Colorado Boulder photo by Casey Cass.

When the raw egg plummeted to the playground hardtop at Creekside Elementary School in Boulder, falling exactly 36 inches, the shell shattered and the gooey insides oozed out. The 18 kindergartners looking on were rivited. A few minutes later, a second egg — this one wrapped in a “helmet” of taped-together bubble wrap and dropped from exactly the same height — fared much better, escaping with its shell still intact.

The messy lesson was this: Your skull is like an eggshell, and without a helmet, a bonk on the head could mean bad news for your brain. The message was just one of the tips for taking care of your brain delivered to the kids by Nicole Speer, director of operations at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Intermountain Neuroimaging Consortium, during a new outreach initiative run by the consortium.
 
“We have a group of neuroscience researchers that spans the region and a huge range of scientific expertise,” Speer said. “We are taking important research findings from CU neuroscientists and putting them directly in the hands of kids, teachers and families in the community in an engaging and active way.”
 
The researchers involved in the consortium use magnetic resonance imaging to take pictures of the brain. The images are allowing researchers to start answering a number of important research questions, from how exercise can fortify the brain to how inadequate sleep disrupts neural processes to how meditation techniques can lessen the effects of illnesses such as depression.
 
“Brain day,” as the kindergartners called it, aims to get the results of those studies into the community right away — with as much fun as possible. On the first Speer's visits to Creekside earlier this month, she taught the students the basics of how the brain works. The kindergartners built neurons out of pipe cleaners, passed a stone around on the playground to demonstrate how neurotransmitters work, and played a round of the classic game red-light green-light to drive home the fact that the most basic function of the brain is to tell the body when to start doing things and when to stop again.
 
It must have stuck because when Speer returned for the second morning, she asked the 5- and 6-year-olds to recall what they learned last week. “We learned about frontal lobes,” one boy said, “and how we use it to control our impulses.”
 
The second morning of “brain day” focused on how to take care of the brain, from using helmets to eating the right foods to getting enough sleep to using simple meditation techniques to think more clearly.  The lessons played out in a pile of fruits and vegetables, jars full of water and glitter and running games outside where paper neurons were offered as prizes. Still, the messiest activity was the hardest to beat.
 
“My favorite part was breaking the egg,” said Ivy Spataro, 6, as she nibbled on the veggies the class had used to demonstrate the best way to fuel your neurons.
 
Ivy’s teacher, Erin Cameron, said having CU scientists come into the classroom is a huge benefit to her students. “Having an expert in the field is brilliant,” Cameron said. “She has the knowledge base and I can help translate that into kindergarten-friendly language.”
 

This article by Laura Snider originally appeared on the Colorado.edu website.

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