What Can Be Learned by Teaching the Brain?

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Rafael Romero-Calderón, a UCLA Professor of Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology and a director for the university’s Project Brainstorm is one of the authors of an article recently published on PLoS Biology’s Community page about UCLA’s innovative interdepartmental program that puts neuroscience majors in Los Angeles-area elementary and high school classrooms.

Here Romero-Calderón answers some questions from PLoS Blogs Community Manager Victoria Costello about the impact of Project Brainstorm on its undergraduate student teachers—and on the young students with whom they are engaged.


1. You discuss the value of teaching about the brain for neuroscience majors who presumably are more accustomed to discussing their knowledge of the brain with their peers and professors. One benefit you cite is expanding their post-graduation employment prospects. How do you think meeting the challenge of translating neuroscience concepts to laypersons and children affects their mastery of the neuroscience subject matter itself?

Effective teaching can only happen when the material is thoroughly understood. This becomes particularly apparent when having to dissect the material more carefully to deliver it to a naïve audience, as would be a classroom full of school children. The undergraduate students realize very quickly that they didn’t really understand many neuroscience concepts when having to explain them in simple, yet accurate terms. In essence, teaching is a great way to identify gaps in one’s knowledge.

2. Have any of your students elected to go into k-12 science education as a result of their classroom experiences?

Although most of our students go on to graduate and professional school, we have had a small number of students that have gone on to participate in the Teach for America program. Similarly, a few students have expressed their interest in becoming school teachers. However, as we are currently in the process of setting up a mechanism to track our students after graduation, we do not have exact numbers yet.

3. I notice your curriculum includes the topic of addiction. How do you handle that?

Drug addiction is a delicate topic, so we only discuss it in generic terms. We focus on how drugs in general (legal or illegal) alter neuron function and how this leads to changes in behavior. Our goal is to teach school children that certain drugs have very real and measurable effects on the brain rather than to focus on a particular disease or drug of abuse. We actively avoid opining on controversial diagnoses as we are not clinicians and would not be the appropriate professionals to discuss these matters. In any case, we only talk about addiction to high school students, and they are normally much less participative and more reserved than their younger cohorts.

4. A 2008 survey revealed only 28% of United States high-school students are well prepared for college-level biology (American College Testing, 2008). You cite the “We’ve Got NERVE: A Call to Arms for Neuroscience Education” paper to make the point that an insufficient number of neuroscientists are acting as stewards of science, given other academic and publishing pressures. How worried should we be about our lack of science literacy as a society?

In one word: very. Individuals can only make an informed decision when they have some basic knowledge of the issue at hand. In a democracy, where people make collective decisions, education is essential. To name two examples, a general knowledge of science becomes crucial to understand the dangers of global warming or the detrimental health effects of obesity. Only when a “critical mass” of knowledge is achieved can we properly discuss these problems and find reasonable solutions. Project Brainstorm was developed in large part to address this lack of science literacy. Although we use the brain as a focal point, one of our overarching goals is to incite a general interest in science and the natural world as a whole.

5. What is the value of a fifth grader knowing how his brain works?

As we point out in the paper, our goal is not to teach neuroscience per se. Rather, we are trying to make science fun and approachable. Nevertheless, we strongly believe that it is never too early to start understanding the human body, the brain included. Fifth graders (and all school children for that matter) should find it very relevant to understand how their brains allow them to learn in school or move their bodies when they play sports, as these are things they regularly do.

Read the article,“Project Brainstorm, Using Neuroscience to Connect College Students with Local Schools,” on PLoS Biology.

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