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ASU life sciences students 'open the minds' of local middle-schoolers

A Gavilan Peak middle school student examines a model of the brain
February 28, 2014

When a Valley middle school teacher asked Pat McGurrin to teach children about the human brain during a school “science day,” he jumped at the chance to share his passion. McGurrin is, after all, a doctoral student in Arizona State University’s neuroscience program in the School of Life Sciences. He investigates the areas of the human brain that control hand grasping. After earning his doctorate, he hopes to transition into a clinical setting and create new rehabilitation models that would improve motor function in people with damage to their nervous system.

McGurrin is also a member of GAINS (Graduate Association of Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Students), a student-led and organized group whose mission includes introducing children to neuroscience. He and other GAINS members are reaching out to grade schools to encourage students to get involved in science.

“Exposing children to the excitement found in science is really important for kids of all ages, particularly for younger students from kindergarten through eighth grade,” McGurrin said. “This was a perfect opportunity for us to get into the classroom and start making a difference.”

Together with fellow graduate students Mari Turk and Josh Klein, also with the Neuroscience Interdisciplinary Graduate Degree Program, McGurrin recently spent a day at Gavilan Peak middle school in Anthem giving presentations about the brain to students in grades five through eight. They covered a wide array of information, adjusting their explanations and activities to a level appropriate for each age group. McGurrin’s group found that regardless of age, the students were curious and wanted to learn more.

“These are bright grade-school students – they asked a lot of really solid questions,” McGurrin said. “I’m hoping that by combining their previous exposure to science with the information we gave them, they left with a new level of enthusiasm and love of science.”

According to McGurrin, the children were especially curious about the brains of family members, more so than their own. When they discussed memory and motor control and how they work in the brain, many students asked about relatives who suffered a stroke or were affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

“It was a little hard to deal with, but some of the kids asked about a relative who has some sort of issue,” McGurrin said. “We tried to fill them in about what was going on without overwhelming them.”

Many students were also curious about more light-hearted subjects, such as dreams or how memories are formed – and some even wondered whether “brain freeze” meant that the entire brain actually froze over.

By the end of their presentations, McGurrin said he felt the outreach effort was successful. GAINS currently has 25 members, but is looking to grow as an organization, as well as continue its community outreach.

School of Life Sciences is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.