Assistant Professor of Psychology Siobhan Robinson and summer research students Sara Aldrich ’19 and Tatenda Chakoma ’18 presented their “Have Brains, Will Travel” outreach program to Laura Pominville’s 5th grade class at Clinton Elementary School in June. 

The interactive neuroscience workshop included three activities that were designed and presented by Robinson and the students.  The workshop began with Chakoma’s description of the basic structure and function of a neuron, the cells that fill the brain. The 5th graders shared what they had recently learned about DNA, the cell membrane and the nucleus. 

 As Chakoma worked his way through the parts of a neuron (the axon, the dendrites, chemicals and electricity) the students busied themselves with individual “Build a Neuron Kits.” In this activity, a model of a neuron was projected on the screen and the students built their own copy of the neuron from foam, beads, pipe cleaners and twist-ties.  Students were able to label the parts of the neuron and encouraged to bring them home to teach their families about the brain. 

Sara Aldrich led the second activity where she engaged the class in a discussion about Autism Spectrum Disorder, which the 5th grade classes discussed in April.  A highlight of Aldrich’s presentation was her video of rats as they performed the Social Bead Odor Recognition Task. The methods were recently worked out in the Robinson Lab by Aldrich with help from Gianna Davino ’20, Abigail Dayton ’19 and Fiona McLaughlin ’19. 

The Autism-related project provided a meaningful opportunity to show the 5th grade students how scientists can attempt to study human conditions in animals, with the hope of finding translational experimental results.  Not surprisingly, the students went wild when Professor Robinson played a popular YouTube video of mice and rats performing tricks that their owners taught them.

In the final activity, after donning gloves, interested students were provided with the opportunity to see and touch real human, primate and rat brains from the Robinson lab.  In addition, students were delighted with the opportunity to dissect preserved sheep brains, during which they learned which parts of the brain are involved with vision, olfaction, hearing, learning, decision making and memory.  Students were inquisitive and amazed at the sight of human and animal brains and had many questions:

“What exactly happens when someone has a brain tumor?”

 “What part of the brain is active when someone is dreaming?”

“Does the brain control all the moving parts of your body?

“What part of the brain dies when a person has Parkinson’s disease?”

While adults at top research universities are trying to answer these very questions, the 5th graders shared the same level of curiosity which was a rewarding experience for the Hamilton students. 

The Clinton students left the classroom with more knowledge about the brain and more inspiration to become scientists, which was the main objective of the trip. The day also made a lasting impression on the Hamilton students. Chakoma said he liked the challenge of talking about the brain in simple language for 5th graders, an experience that reminded him that communication is one of the most fundamental skills a scientist should have.

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