Juggling before live audiences is one of the ways that University of Washington researcher Eric Chudler sparks interest in the study of the brain.
“What is my brain doing that allows me to juggle?” he says he asks students at the school presentations he gives regularly.
Chudler’s Web site, Neuroscience for Kids, is designed to work the same way. “What the Web site has is a number of hooks that can grab students to try to spark their interest,” he says.
Because of its effectiveness at doing just that—150 million different files are downloaded from the site each year—Neuroscience for Kids is being awarded the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE). Science is published by AAAS, the nonprofit science society.
“The Neuroscience for Kids Web site is engaging for kids of all ages and levels of science education,” says Melissa McCartney, an editorial fellow at Science. “Content found on the site includes articles, lesson plans, and experiments developed and vetted through a collaborative effort of scientists and teachers. What sets this site apart from others is how it has always been focused on updated and vetted content, rather than on the latest browser enhancements, proving that you don’t need a million dollar Web site to educate the public.”
The Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE) was designed to promote exceptional online materials that are available free of charge to science educators. The acronym SPORE refers to a reproductive element adapted to develop, often in less than ideal conditions, into something new. The winning projects are intended to be the seed of progress in education, even in the face of formidable challenges to educational innovation. Science publishes an article about each winning project by the project’s developer. The article about Chudler’s Web site will be published in the 25 June issue of Science.
“We want to recognize innovators in science education,” says Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science. “At the same time, this competition will promote those Web sites with the most potential to benefit science students and teachers. The publication of an article in Science on each winning site will help guide everyone to important online resources, thereby promoting science literacy.”
As a researcher, Chudler studies cerebral cortex and basal ganglia mechanisms of nociception, or neural processing of potentially damaging stimuli, and pain, and how the cerebral cortex and basal ganglia process information from multiple sensory systems. His work in educational outreach stems from a strong conviction that scientists need to help support and foster the next generations of scientists and more generally to educate the public, especially considering the growing challenges associated with such age-related neurological disorders as Alzheimer’s disease. One of the main goals of the site is to motivate pre-college students to learn more about science.
“Educational outreach is the right thing to do,” Chudler says. “In the STEM fields, we’re falling behind. It’s our duty as scientists to give back and to share our expertise with the public.”
“Unless we come up with cures for such conditions as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s,” he says, “the toll is going to be huge.”
As a student, Chudler wasn’t always headed toward a career in neuroscience. After taking a marine biology elective in high school, he entered UCLA thinking he would pursue marine science, but in his junior year, he worked in the psychology lab of John Liebeskind, managed to publish papers as an undergraduate—and was hooked.
“What could be more interesting than how the brain works?” Chudler says.
Both of Chudler’s parents are teachers, but it wasn’t until he started working in his daughter’s preschool classroom that he got actively involved in educational outreach. Visiting his daughter’s and then his son’s classrooms, as well as other classrooms he was subsequently invited to, Chudler started to assemble the materials that became Neuroscience for Kids.
“What my classroom visits allowed me to do was to try out new things,” he says.
The first materials to go on the Web site were the result of a collaboration between middle-school teachers and research neuroscientists. Chudler credits the teachers with the plain-language accessibility of the site, and the neuroscientists have worked to ensure the site’s accuracy.
Today, the Web site reaches out to students in a wide variety of ways. One section dispels some popular myths about neuroscience, such as the claim that we only use ten percent of our brains. Another presents optical illusions so that students can test their own perceptions—“we’re all walking laboratories,” Chudler says. A section called “Neuroscientist Network” allows students and teachers to email neuroscientists in order to ask them questions about neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, educational requirements to become a neuroscientist, and careers in neuroscience.
Chudler suspects that the personal e-mails with neuroscientists are as impactful at stoking students’ interest in neuroscience as in-person interactions, but he wants to continue testing his hunch.
In the meantime, students crowd around the juggling Chudler and ask for his autograph after he leads them in presentations about the brain by asking them questions. He recommends to other neuroscientists wishing to do educational outreach that they juggle, too—or at least perform interesting skills that will pull students into thinking about the processes of the brain.
Similarly, he hopes the SPORE award and the essays about winning Web sites in Science will attract other scientists and expand science education outreach.
“I hope that scientists in other disciplines will see, not only my essay, but all of the SPORE-winner essays,” Chudler says, “and maybe decide to create some of their own educational resources.”