Neuroscience for Middle Schoolers

Campers put the finishing touches on their "brain caps" identifying the main parts of the human brain and their functions.

Inspiration struck Amalia McDonald several years ago. As a University of Virginia Ph.D. student in psychology, she attended a summer camp expo, looking to talk with parents about allowing their children to participate in social development studies conducted by her academic department. What she discovered instead was that many of the parents there exploring summer camp options wished there was a science-based, research camp that their kids could attend.

That led McDonald, who oversees a UVA research program investigating the biological mechanisms that contribute to healthy social neural development in children, to consider the possibilities. She envisioned a youth camp where graduate students and other volunteers could introduce curious youth to some of the neuroscientific concepts underlining our understanding of the human brain, genetics, our sensory systems and emotions. Upon returning from the camp expo, McDonald told her project’s principal investigator, Assoc. Prof. of Psychology Jessica Connelly, about her vision.

“It’s a great idea. Write a grant and let’s make it happen,” Connelly replied.

The UVA Brain Camp debuted last month, supported by a three-year grant by the Jefferson Trust Foundation, Assoc. Prof. Connelly, and the volunteer efforts of McDonald and other graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. Eight middle-school students spent five days on Grounds, visiting various UVA science spaces, conducting experiments and learning neuroanatomy basics with the use of microscopes and human MRI brain scans in a Chemistry Building lab with a window decorated with a smiling cartoon brain. Led by McDonald and her partner, postdoctoral researcher Rolf Skyberg, the weeklong camp invited campers who were recommended by area schools and afterschool programs serving communities and families who otherwise would not be able to afford traditional STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) camps.

“We want to inspire young students and to spark scientific interests that we can help them develop,” McDonald said.

The Jefferson Trust Foundation grant allows the camp to be offered free of charge to the invited campers. Skyberg said McDonald stressed the importance of making UVA Brain Camp free for campers, because she wanted to make it a realistic option for its target audience. 

“We're trying to target underrepresented communities in science that might not have opportunities to get hands-on experience doing science in the way that I did when I was a kid,” said Skyberg, who studies the physiological development of the mouse visual system as a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of JC Cang, UVA’s Paul T. Jones Jefferson Scholar Foundation Professor of Neuroscience. “There certainly are other science camps around Virginia, but they’re all fairly expensive.”

Brain Caps and ‘Finding Nemo’

McDonald said they tried to tailor last month’s camp around the scientific areas in which they and the other volunteers have specialized,  “and I think our enthusiasm shows through for the campers.”

On the third morning, campers shared iPads in the lab to navigate and identify the different lobes of the human brain before sketching and illustrating the functions of the different sections on large paper cutouts that they then fashioned into “brain caps.” Later that same day, McDonald explained a recent study of hers revealing how different regions of child participants’ and adult participants’ brains “lit up” while watching a seven-minute clip from the animated movie “Finding Nemo” during functional MRI scans that reveal blood flow indicating which parts of the brain are being stimulated. (These results show areas of the brain that are synchronous in neural activity between participants, and by looking at adults and children, researchers can ask questions about their social development and how closely a child’s neural response resembles that of the average adult.)

Before inviting campers to observe brain samples of a pig, a prairie vole and a tree shrew under microscopes, McDonald shared digital images of MRI scans of other camp leaders, allowing the campers to see how human brains vary in size and shape.

UVA Ph.D. student Amalia McDonald launched and co-directed the first UVA Brain Camp for middle school students.

Department of Psychology, College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

“Doesn’t Elise’s brain look different from mine?” Skyberg asked a trio of boys huddled around an iPad.

“It looks smarter,” joked camper Hares Ragub.

The following day, camper Samirah Cooper, 14, volunteered to sit in a small, unlit booth wearing a headcap covered with EEG sensors as she observed a series of squares interrupted by flashing circles on a computer monitor.

“That’s your brain activity!” UVA psychology graduate student Minah Kim told Samirah after the end of the brief experiment, showing Samirah the recorded spikes in her neural activity indicating when the patterns of shapes on the screen had changed.

During a lunch break, Samirah said she loved learning about the human brain and the opportunity to spend time in a UVA lab.

It’s really different from science class in school, because there you only have one teacher, and she’s lecturing the whole class,” said Samirah, who attends Buford Middle School in Charlottesville, “But here, [the camp instructors] sit next to you, walk you through it and encourage you. They’ll take you through things step by step, and it’s a lot more fun.”

The ultimate goal of UVA Brain Camp, McDonald said, is to develop a mentorship network connecting young students in the Charlottesville community like Samirah with UVA students and scientists eager to support campers interested in pursuing scientific interests in college and beyond. McDonald said they are in the process of applying for an NIH education grant that would enable them to expand the program and train more graduate students interested in science outreach efforts.

“There’s a wealth of information out there about how racial and ethnic diversity is a problem in neuroscience, specifically, but also in all the biomedical sciences,” McDonald said. “There's this idea of a ‘leaky pipeline’ with people that are interested, but they don't have good access to mentors who could help foster their success. Especially at this age, a lot of kids might not feel like they're good at science, only because they haven't been given the chance and the opportunity to really learn it and to have that hands-on experience. So that's a huge thing that we’re trying to provide, and from there, we want to provide strong mentorship for these kids afterwards to keep supporting them along their scientific path.”

Samirah said the camp “definitely” has her thinking about studying neuroscience in college.

“The more you learn, the more it makes me want to go out and find more answers,” the middle schooler said. “And I look at the camp leaders, and I’m like, ‘OK, you don’t look that much older than me,’ so it motivates me to strive in whatever I do. … They’re just really open and always saying, ‘hey, come do this!’ and encouraging us. They’re always telling us, ‘hey you’re doing great!’ And that’s a thing that people need to hear, especially when you know they actually mean it.”

For more information about the UVA Brain Camp and ways to support its mission, visit their web site.