UF students bring brain science to life for community schoolchildren

University of Florida student volunteers fanned out to public schools across the Gainesville region March 16-19 and hosted schoolchildren at the Evelyn F. and William L. McKnight Brain Institute to energize a total more than 1,700 children about that most complex and fascinating organ: the brain.

UF doctoral student Nicola Rutherford helps area homeschooled children make models of neurons.As part of Brain Awareness Week, a worldwide event to draw attention to the progress and benefits of brain research, 47 volunteers — including UF graduate students, undergrads, postdocs, technicians and one physician — led hands-on workshops that gave insights into how people see, hear, smell, taste and process information.

“I like it when the kids get out and realize what they’ve been learning in school is equipping them for the real world,” said Mindy Kiker, whose three homeschooled children, ages 5 to 13, participated in a workshop at the McKnight Brain Institute.

Nalani Thomas, 5, of Gainesville works on her neuron model.Organized by the North Central Florida Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience, UF volunteers gave presentations at 14 Alachua County schools — from elementary to high school — and hosted three other schools as well as 20 homeschooled students at the McKnight Brain Institute.

“We’re looking to inspire people about science, and neuroscience particularly,” said Nicola Rutherford, a fourth-year doctoral student who served as outreach coordinator for the week’s events.

Whether holding their noses while chewing a jelly bean or donning goggles that invert the wearer’s vision, the children learned about brain processes in an experiential way. Younger students created models of neurons using colorful pipe cleaners, while students in middle and high school had the opportunity to learn about anatomy by examining and dissecting sheep brains.

A “neuron” made out of pipe cleaners.“At school, we wouldn’t get to do these fun, interesting experiments,” said Bryce Jarrell, a sixth-grader from Ocala’s Blessed Trinity Catholic School, which rewarded four science-fair winners with a trip to McKnight. “It was easier to learn it hands on — the texture, the smell — instead of pictures.”

What’s more, said Barbara Guerra, the curriculum coordinator at Blessed Trinity, coming to the UF campus is an opportunity for younger students to experience being at a college.

“They are connected immediately with the idea of higher education,” she said.

About the Author

Michelle Jaffee's picture

Michelle Jaffee

Michelle Koidin Jaffee is assistant director of communications for the McKnight Brain Institute of the University of Florida. In more than 20 years as a journalist, she worked as a...Read More