The Art and Science of the Brain: NW Noggin makes neuroscience fun

Portland State University's picture
Author: Cristina Rojas, CLAS Media Relations

The brain is a lot to wrap your mind around.

The 3-pound mass of fatty tissue is the most complex structure known to humankind, but thanks to the NW Noggin program run by two Portland State University instructors, thousands of kids have been given a chance to explore the mysterious organ up close and personal. 

March 12 through 18 is global Brain Awareness Week. But for Bill Griesar and Jeff Leake, who both teach in the psychology and university studies programs at PSU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, increasing awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research is a year-round effort.

They, along with undergraduate and graduate students from PSU and other area colleges, regularly travel to often-overlooked schools across the Portland metro area and state, giving students in grades kindergarten through 12 hands-on lessons in neuroscience.

They bring along some unusual props: containers full of pipe cleaners, brightly colored 3-D-printed models of brains and an assortment of real brains from humans and animals like a cat, chicken, fish, sheep and raccoon.

"You brought human brains?" some students say in awe. 

To which Griesar responds: "Yeah, you did too."

"You don't think of yourself as actually being made of things that are growing and changing and responding to your environment," he said. "That's kind of powerful. That's actionable information for kids."

The group's visits are a mix of science and art. The kids touch the brains — some enthusiastically, others less so — as well as pepper the PSU instructors and college students with questions that range from the effects of smoking on the brain, to dreams and nightmares, as well as work on art projects like constructing neurons out of pipe cleaners or drawing visual metaphors of brain structure and function on a large map of the lobes.

Griesar and Leake say that beyond exploring the brain, they hope their visits spark an interest in learning and perhaps plant the seed of a future career.

Judging from the enthusiastic response they get, their fun, cross-disciplinary approach appears to be working.

"They're transfixed," Griesar said. "If there's something that motivates you or you're interested in, that's going to drive your engagement. When you actually start talking about the brain and answering these sharp, direct questions, they're totally engaged. They're totally excited about learning more and wanting to do more."

The idea for NW Noggin came about in 2012 when Griesar and Leake, both parents of children in Northeast Portland's Sabin K-8 School, saw the cuts being made to the arts and sciences and wanted to create a program for the kids in the Multnomah County-run Schools Uniting Neighborhoods (SUN) summer program that would incorporate academics and enrichment activities.

They combined their expertise — Griesar, neuroscience, and Leake, art — and recruited student volunteers from area colleges including Portland State, Oregon Health and Science University, Pacific Northwest College of Art and Washington State University's Vancouver campus to develop a four-week class on the brain and behavior.

It was so successful that they expanded to three schools the following summer, then five before turning it into a year-round venture.

Griesar estimates that the brains have been held by some 18,000 students. They've also traveled to the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and Congress, making stops at local public schools in San Diego and Washington, D.C.; hosted talks at VeloCult, a bike shop that serves coffee and beer; and collaborated with p:ear, a community center of sorts for homeless youth.

NW Noggin was honored on March 1 with an "Out of the Ordinary" award at the Regional Arts & Culture Council's annual Juice breakfast for giving children "a unique opportunity to learn about neuroscience and the brain using nontraditional, artistic methods that make the information more accessible and impactful."

Leake said the integration of the arts helps kids connect with the material in a way that traditional teaching and standardized tests do not allow.

"What I was really wanting to do was give students a way to make some of these concepts ...and some of these things that they may not normally think of as having really anything to do with them personally relevant and also give them an opportunity to explore these concepts without having to worry about, 'Did I get the right answer for this or not?'" Leake said. 

"So many of the students that we work with have sort of struggled with the academic system the way it is now," he said. "A part of it is letting them know there's other ways to learn things and that this stuff isn't beyond them."

Leake encourages them to draw on their own experiences. For example, they or someone they know may suffer from depression or have had a concussion.

"That makes it much more impactful because this has something to do with them," he said.

Another goal of the program is to inform and excite the public about ongoing neuroscience research. Griesar said he wants research to inform policy and hopes to empower the kids. 

"We want to tell students honestly about what it is we know so far, what don't we know ..., what are the limits of some of the techniques or technologies we use to get info and data, and also what do they think we should do with this information?" he said.

The kids often ask questions or give their opinions about later school start times or the minimum age for smoking cigarettes and marijuana -- and Griesar said the research can be a great starting point for those discussions.

But it's not just the kids who get something out of the program. For the undergraduate and graduate students who accompany Griesar and Leake on the trips, they learn how to teach kids about brains and neuroscience in lay terms, connect with mentors, explore career possibilities that they otherwise might not have considered and carry out PSU's motto to "Let knowledge serve the city."

"Once they start doing it, they come back again and again," Griesar said. "There's something really powerful about that ability to connect to a community."

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