Keeping the interest of kindergarteners through second-graders at the end of a long day isn't easy. But an after-school program conducted at Rockbridge County's Central Elementary School succeeded in doing so, teaching them about parts of the brain, brain development, how the brain impacts behavior and how environment impacts the brain.
Four students from Washington and Lee University led by Megan Fulcher, associate professor of psychology, taught "Science of the Brain" for one hour twice a week in January and February. Seventeen children chose to attend the class from a variety offered as READY enrichment classes, funded by a 21st Century Grant.
"When we saw the list of classes the children could choose from, we thought we had some pretty stiff competition, especially among the girls," said Fulcher. "My research is in gender development, and one of our objectives was to get them to see women as scientists. But we had six girls in the class, so that was good."
The W&L team consisted of Kingsley Schroeder and Eliza Parrott, senior psychology majors; Charlotte Magee, a junior neuroscience major; and Randl Dent, a junior psychology and sociology double major.
To keep the children's interest, the W&L students taught interactively, acting like they were neurons in the brain and playing telephone to understand how the brain hears things. They played games with Lego bricks and used decorated egg cartons to illustrate how helmets protect the skull and brain. They also played Simon Says and discussed how the cerebellum makes it possible to coordinate movements.
"When we were going over the different lobes of the brain, they loved saying the words," said Magee. "They felt smart being able to say big words, especially 'occipital,' and being able to tell us that the temporal lobe is what makes you hear."
Fulcher's interest lies in children's gender role development, so the team showed the children a Barbie doll in a soldier outfit and asked whether boys or girls would play with it. "They were confused because they had gender stereotypical thinking," explained Randl, "but in the end they decided both boys and girls would play with the Barbie."
Throughout the program, the W&L team kept parents informed by sending them a link to a blog that detailed what the children had learned each day at http://fulcherlab.academic.wlu.edu/the-science-of-the-brain/.
Fulcher said she was gratified that, at the end of the eight weeks, the children said both men and women could be scientists, and they felt confident that they too could be scientists someday.
Fulcher plans to teach the program again to third- and fifth-graders, on whom she thinks the course may have a bigger impact.