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Ew! Gross! Cool! Fifth graders from Kyrene de la Sierra Elementary School in Phoenix expressed delight and amazement while peering at bee pollen through miniature microscopes or holding sheep brains in their gloved hands as part of a Brain Fair for children at Arizona State University.
“This is so cool; I want to be a scientist and do this all day long,” exclaimed one child rotating from microscope to microscope, looking at the hairy leg of a house fly under one scope and a paramecia under another.
That coolness factor and enthusiasm were just the responses associate professor Heather Bimonte-Nelson was hoping for at the event held at ASU March 22-23 for more than 700 kindergarteners through fifth graders from several Phoenix area schools, including Title 1 schools.
“I’m a brain scientist, so I study how a brain works,” explained Bimonte-Nelson, director of the Behavioral Neuroscience Program in ASU’s Department of Psychology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Standing before the children in sparkly sneakers and a jewel-encrusted lab coat with “Dr. Heather” scripted in glitter, Bimonte-Nelson quickly put the children through warm-up exercises, having them point to their frontal lobe, temporal lobe, parietal lobe and occipital lobe, while shouting out the names of the lobes.
“Knowledge is power,” Bimonte-Nelson said and raised the anticipation level by listing some of the hands-on activities the young visitors would experience at one of six science stations set up around the perimeter of Carson Ballroom in Old Main on ASU’s Tempe campus.
“And, we have real brains, right back there,” she said pointing, causing the small heads to turn in surprise. At that science station, children viewed different sized specimens of brains from several animals. They also saw, in a large jar, a human brain, and they had a chance to glue lobe labels on paper brain hats, and color sections of the brain on a sheet of paper.
If they carefully put on a glove, they were able to hold a sheep’s brain, turn it over to look at it up close, and, even smell it.
At another station, the children used Play-Doh to make small-scaled brains, which they took home with them. ASU undergraduate and graduate students designed and staffed each of the science stations and at this one, modeled step-by-step how to make the Play-Doh brains and add each of the lobes in a different color.
As the small hands rolled two balls of clay and then pushed them together to form the right and left hemispheres of the brain, one child asked: “Can you have a little bit of a line?” The response: “Yes. Our brains actually have a line called a fissure.”
At the robot station, a group of girls became so enamored with one of the bots that they named it “topbert.”
And, in the middle of the large room, children lined up on a colorful taped outline on the floor of a neuron and acted out how a neuron fires, with the help of several ASU students and scientists, and a visiting researcher from the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen).
“There’s a lot of touching, hands-on activities here,” remarked one mother. “The children will remember a lot better than if they just read about this in textbooks.”
Over the two days, children from six local elementary schools would visit ASU for a college science experience. During lunch on the lawn in front of Old Main, faculty members answered questions about what it was like to be a scientist or college student. A surprise visitor, ASU’s Sparky, joined the children and was greeted with high-fives and hugs.
The Brain Fair is the brainchild of Bimonte-Nelson, who is an expert at involving ASU students in her research, which characterizes relations between the brain and cognition. She began a community outreach program four years ago during Brian Awareness Week, and started visiting local elementary classrooms to talk about the brain.
Last year, she and a colleague hosted a “little brainiacs” event at the Children’s Museum of Phoenix for boys and girls from the Children First Academy. Children loved her exciting and popular program on brains so much that it generated more and more requests from teachers and parents. Bimonte-Nelson realized she couldn’t continue to cart microscopes and brain models from classroom to classroom, and, during a Eureka moment, she decided to host a Brain Fair at ASU.
“Heather is a unique person who does this because she loves this,” said Keith Crnic, chair of ASU’s psychology department. “She brings her excitement for science to other people.”
Assisting with this year’s Brain Fair were more than 150 ASU undergraduate and graduate students, and faculty members from the psychology department, School of Life Sciences, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, and College of Teacher Education and Leadership.
A number of sponsors also lined up including Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, Woodside Sustained Community Service, ASU School of Life Sciences Undergraduate Research (SOLUR) Program, Curriculum Technology of California, WhiteGlove House Call Health, and GE.
As the young children were leaving the ASU campus to return to their own schools, they were asked how it felt to hold a brain. “It was gross,” one of them said. And, when asked what their favorite part of the day was. Their answer: “Getting to hold a brain.”