Graduate students Kelly Remole (left), Heather McKellar, and Cate Jensen (not pictured) developed Columbia University Neuroscience Outreach to introduce New York City schoolchildren to brain science.
Kelley Remole’11, PhD, still has fond memories of the day a local scientist visited her middle school classroom. “It was the first time I had a met a scientist and I thought it was really cool. I was already interested in science, but I would say she made the idea of science as a profession more real in my head.”
So when Remole began graduate school at P&S in the Department of Neuroscience she wanted to pass the favor on to a new generation. The department didn’t have an outreach program, but the chair encouraged Remole to start one.
“I cold-called about half a dozen schools in upper Manhattan and was successful at getting through to one that year (2006). I recruited two friends to help me, and we got the class talking about science and the brain. The next year we got more volunteers and teacher contacts through word of mouth, and the Columbia University Neuroscience Outreach (CUNO) program was born.”
Every year since then the program has grown. Last year, 34 CUNO volunteers reached nearly 1000 New York City students at 16 schools in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. In 2011, CUNO volunteer Heather McKellar’11, PhD, helped the program establish a partnership with the Dana Foundation, a non-profit that promotes brain research and education, to prepare New York City high school students for the International Brain Bee. And this year, CUNO volunteers are on target to reach even more students, says current CUNO president Cate Jensen, a 4th year graduate student and doctoral candidate in neuroscience.
“We make the brain accessible and fun rather than mysterious and distant,” Jensen says. “Our goal at CUNO is not to turn every child we meet into a future researcher, but instead to increase scientific awareness and understanding. Neuroscience has broad public interest, so it is a handy tool for engaging even young children in science.”
Students get their first peak of a human brain.
One quick way to captivate a room full of 12-year-olds, CUNO volunteers have found, is to bring a preserved human brain for “show-and-tell.” Initial reactions vary from “Eeww, gross!” to “That is amazing! Can I take a picture?”
“Seeing a brain in person never fails to solidify the awe of everything that it can do,” says McKellar. “One teacher told me that six months after we visited them, the kids are still talking about touching human brains.”
Other hands-on activities teach students how the brain works: elementary students construct model neurons out of pipe cleaners, or eat jelly beans while holding their noses to learn about the way the brain processes smell and taste.
For most elementary and middle school kids, the visit from CUNO is their first introduction to neuroscience. “We spend a good amount of time answering questions, and they’re usually very thoughtful,” McKellar says.
“Neuroscience can seem lofty and difficult to adults,” adds Remole, “but kids get excited learning about their own brain and what it can do.”
CUNO Volunteers Honored by Society for Neuroscience
In November, the Society for Neuroscience presented Kelley Remole'11, PhD, Cate Jensen and Heather McKellar'11, PhD, (pictured from left to right) with the Next Generation Award, which honors individuals who make significant efforts in public communication, outreach, and education about neuroscience.
"The success of CUNO is due to the extraordinary commitment of its scientist volunteers," the three honorees said. "But these efforts wouldnt be possible without the encouragement and financial support from the Department of Neuroscience, the Greater New York City Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience, the Dana Foundation, and the Mind, Brain and Behavior Initiative at Columbia University."
Kelley Remole is now director of neuroscience outreach for the future Jerome L. Greene Science Center on the Manhattanvile campus of Columbia University. Heather McKellar is program assistant at the NYU Neuroscience Institute.