We <3 Brains

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Jae Sim dissects a leech in preparation of electrophysiology  study

Jae Sim dissects a leech in preparation of electrophysiology study

What’s that purple goo coming out of that big slug’s rear end?

Oww! That crayfish pinched me again!

Do I REALLY have to pick up that cockroach with my hands?

This is what I have to listen to in my lab at the beginning of each school year when high school seniors are conducting research on neuroscience. A public high school may seem like an unusual place for neuroscience research, but the teens I teach are really into it. Let me tell you how we got started.

More than 10 years ago, a major shift at our school saw many freshmen and sophomores registering for AP Biology instead of waiting for their junior or senior years. It occurred to me that after taking AP Biology, some students may wish to explore neurobiology in greater depth, so I created a class called Recent Advances in Neurobiology.

Students giving a teacher a mock EEG analysis.

Students John Kim (far left), Jon Sredl, Chris Heo, and John Anderson prepare Dr. Cammer’s head for EEG analysis

It’s pretty much like a graduate school seminar class: students do about 45 pages of reading homework on various topics in neurobiology, then come in and discuss everything they’ve read. Half their grade is based on class participation (i.e., talking, which high schoolers seem to be fond of anyway). Of course, they are “inspired” to come to class prepared because there is a quiz every day. (Yay!)

The topics for reading and discussion are chosen by the students, and throughout the semester we usually cover the neurobiology of Alzheimer’s disease, cocaine, synesthesia, marijuana, gender, and stuff like that. The students seem to love the material and the format.

Three years ago we decided to take this neuro stuff a bit further: we created a new Neuroscience Research Laboratory where seniors can work on year-long research projects.

Two girls experiementing.

Jasteena Gill (left) and Mica Moore discuss the electrophysiology results from an experiment with Aplysia (a sea slug)

I have students studying the nervous system of the sea slug Aplysia, the escape response in Madagascar hissing cockroaches, and the neurobiology of behavior in crayfish. Other students aredesigning a wheelchair (and other peripherals) to be controlled by brainwaves. This program can be established at almost any high school. All you need is a strong desire and commitment – and a sign that says “We ? Brains,” of course.

Oh, yes. By the end of the first week they know what the purple goo is and they’re picking up the cockroaches. But somehow they still get pinched by the crayfish.

Paul A. Cammer, Ph.D., Director Neuroscience Research Laboratory Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology

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