BrainReach, a volunteer program based in McGill University, sends graduate neuroscience students into classrooms across Montreal to lead hands-on science lessons about the brain.
When you ask a child to draw a picture of a scientist, what is the result? Many might think of an Einstein look-alike with wild hair, dressed in a while lab coat and mixing colourful, bubbling chemicals. But those perceptions can change dramatically when someone who doesn’t fit that image comes into a classroom, identifies herself as a researcher, and begins to make science tangible and accessible to young thinkers. Personal connection can break the traditional barriers that separate academia from the general public and circumvent the media-as-gatekeeper pattern that we see so often. It transforms science from “something that other people do” into “something I can interact with.” Here is the story of one graduate program in Montreal that is making just such a connection with kids throughout their province.
BrainReach was spearheaded in 2011 by Dr. Josephine Nalbantoglu, then-director of the Integrated Program in Neuroscience at McGill University. (See “Resources” for links to this and other programs mentioned in the text.) Ian Mahar, a graduate student presenter and coordinator at the program’s inception, remembers: “Josephine called a meeting and asked if anyone wanted to help build this initiative known as BrainReach, and a number of us raised our hands to get involved. We had no idea how it would build from there, though I’m sure we would have been surprised to know.”
BrainReach sends graduate student volunteer educators into classrooms across Montreal to lead hands-on science lessons about the brain. The key to BrainReach was having the same presenters come back to one classroom multiple times, to build a rapport with the students and field their questions as they grew in curiosity and comfort. According to Jenea Bin, another of the first BrainReach coordinators: “We decided to target underserved schools in Montreal, as these students do not always have the same access to science learning materials. At the high school level, these schools also tend to have higher dropout rates.”
Another approach that has distinguished BrainReach since the beginning is its emphasis on developing a curriculum that is coherent with the current research about learning – we are a neuroscience program, after all! Each presentation has to have a few interactive activities to help kids experience the material (not just hear it). We help the students observe brain cells through microscopes, touch a real brain, record electrical signals from their muscles, and learn about perception with prism goggles. Reviews are built in at the end of each session, as well as the beginning of the next one, to help with learning retention. The initial curriculum was developed over the course of a year, and from then on we have been updating it constantly, since neuroscience is a field under rapid development.
The BrainReach North branch was developed in 2013-14 to serve kids in the north of Quebec. “I have a family branch in a small community on Baffin Island called Cape Dorset,” explains Emily Coffey, who laid the groundwork for the new branch. “In those small communities up north, many children have even less access to science. They can’t be taken to museum trips, and may never meet a scientist.” This required a re-imagining of BrainReach, leading to online guides for teachers and videos to explain concepts and take advantage of the same hands-on activities in places we couldn’t send graduate students in person.
Responses to the program
“I enjoyed it immensely from the first presentation, and was hooked; I remember wanting to work with as many classrooms as I could,” recalls Ian. He and many volunteers after him were motivated to bring in the newest research, cultivate a hunger for learning in their students, and challenge neuroscience myths (Do you really use only ten percent of your brain? No!).
Nowadays, we also hear from parents asking for the BrainReach program to come to their son or daughter’s school. This is heartening, and we are thrilled that parents are willing to act as liaisons for us – but it is imperative that the teacher is also on board. Teachers have limited classroom time, and even in elementary school they have a curriculum to get through. In order for a teacher to feel that it is worthwhile for them to give us hours of classroom time, we have to address the ways in which BrainReach covers parts of Quebec’s standardized curriculum; we also have to adequately communicate the benefits of the program to their students. For example, students need to learn about the scientific method and its associated terminology. So, in our session about brain cells, we ask students to make a hypothesis (or “educated guess”) about what a neuron will look like before they take a look in the microscope, recording their predictions in the form of a drawing. Then, we have the children look and draw what they see, just like the great scientists who first observed these amazing cells.
BrainReach sessions are also used to inform students about the neuroscience behind relevant social issues. In the high school curriculum, a full session is devoted to mechanisms of drugs and addiction, and in elementary school, we talk about how sleep affects our attention, mood, and memory.
Once a solid contact is made, it is a “win-win-win” situation – teachers get help preparing their science class, the kids get to develop relationships with people currently involved in neuroscience research, and the graduate volunteers gain crucial presentation skills and a connection to the world outside academia. “The children are always excited to know that the BrainReach presenters are coming,” one teacher commented. Ben Gold, who has been a presenter with the program for four years straight, remarked that he has also learned a lot about neuroscience by returning to the basics, thinking about things from the students’ perspectives, and working with teaching partners who have different areas of expertise. Another volunteer, Cindy Hovington, was so inspired by her experience that she went on to found Curious Neuron, an organization dedicated to translating research into accessible content for the public.
As the organization became bigger, we had to systematize and structure the program. This is a challenge for neuroscience graduate students, who are used to more solitary work in their own labs, and are contributing to BrainReach entirely on a volunteer basis. In fact, it was (and continues to be) a crash course in project management.
We formed subcommittees for Elementary, High School, and North, each with about ten people. While some recruited and matched volunteers with schools, others focused on refining the curriculum and translating it into French. Still others inventoried and distributed supplies for our interactive activities on a weekly basis. We streamlined our work using online tools such as Google Drive, Wikispaces, and Slack.
At each turn, we were supported by the boundless enthusiasm and energy of our program’s graduate students, but we also depended upon the consistent backing of program administrators. In addition to the Integrated Program in Neuroscience’s structural support, we partnered with Montreal’s Centre for Research in Brain, Language and Music for extra funding, an extended pool of potential volunteers, and the ability to give one-time workshops as a part of the 24 Hours of Science initiative. We even began taking on interns from Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business to help us develop a more professional presence and seek funding.
Kelly Smart, BrainReach North’s current president, has the additional task of communicating cross-culturally and establishing working relationships at a distance. “We approach this by collaborating whenever we can. We seek out people and groups who already have the connections and expertise we need, and we try to work with them and learn from them. It takes a lot of persistence and a willingness to listen and adapt constantly,” says Kelly.
Finally, as with any volunteer-based organization, resources are an issue. BrainReach does not have a fully sustainable funding model, and for the most part we have worked with donated equipment and temporary office spaces. However, the program has received some important boosts, including a Telus grant, as well as a recent crowdfunding campaign that brought in over $12,000! These funds will help us to plan better for the future, and invest in key infrastructure elements such as a website, as well as allowing us to send volunteers into Indigenous communities to give science camps as part of BrainReach North.
We are still developing and refining the program based on feedback from volunteers and teachers, but the most reliable measure of success is whether schools continue to sign up. And they do! This year, we have sent 100 volunteers to over 30 schools in the Montreal area, and have sent volunteers on teaching trips to three remote northern communities. Under the leadership of Marisa Cressati as high school coordinator, we saw a spike in the number of registered high schools and non-traditional classes (like homeschool co-ops and classes for kids with special needs). We hope to see other university groups learn from our experience and establish similar programs, especially in an age where media trends can obscure the difference between good and bad science. Giving science a “face” can change the way people interact with it, at any age.
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Photo: courtesy Anastasia Sares
First published in Education Canada, September 2018