How phantom skulls, model spines, foamheads, and cherry tomatoes can turn middle school students into aspiring scientists
Jeshua Silva, 13, carefully extends a thin metal instrument into a replica of a brain while her friend Ann Gonzalez keeps the path open with a probe and monitors every movement on a 3-D imaging screen. When Silva extracts the intact brain tumor she is targeting— actually a frozen cherry tomato—both girls break into huge grins.
“Great job,” Frederick Smith, image-guided surgery coordinator in the Department of Neurosurgery, tells them. “You did that with the precision of a trained surgeon.”
Silva and Gonzalez, both 8th graders at Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.
Middle School, are two of more than 1,500 Los Angeles Unified School District students who have participated in Brainworks, an outreach program sponsored by the Maxine Dunitz Neurosurgical Institute and the Department of Neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai. Its goal: to introduce gifted underprivileged 7th and 8th graders to medicine in an engaging, hands-on way.
Keith Black, MD, Professor and chair of the Department of Neurosurgery, launched Brainworks in 1998 in the hope of cultivating in youngsters the same kind of passion for science that he found as a boy.
Gonzalez aspires to one day study cures for brain cancer. Silva wants to be a forensic scientist. The Brainworks team wants to give the teenagers every opportunity to reach their goals.
Brainworks especially targets minority and female students, two groups that tend to become disengaged at the start of the middle grades, which greatly reduces the odds that they will eventually graduate, according to studies.
“Somehow, between elementary school, where kids are generally enthusiastic and inquisitive and discoverers by nature, students come into middle school and they’ve either lost that or the way that we’re teaching the students is turning them off to science,” says Virginia Shepherd, PhD, director of the Center for Science Outreach at Vanderbilt University. Engaging these students, especially minority females, in science experiences outside the classroom can motivate them to continue taking science courses as they head into high school, according to a 2006 California Institute of Technology study.
President Barack Obama also addressed the education crisis and called for action in his 2011 State of the Union address. “The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations,” he noted. “[But] if we take these steps—if we raise expectations for every child, and give them the best possible chance at an education, from the day they are born until the last job they take—we will reach the goal I set two years ago:
By the end of the decade, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”
Dr. Black’s own medical inspirations outside the home were fostered by a visit to the medical school of the University of Pennsylvania when he was an adolescent. The researchers and doctors welcomed him into their laboratories and took the time to explain what they were doing, he recalls. He still remembers their passion for their work.
“At the age when some kids start to get the message that their life choices are limited, I didn’t get derailed,” Dr. Black says. “These researchers opened up my possibilities and reinforced the encouragement I received at home for my pursuit of medicine.”
Encouragement is a central part of Brainworks. From rounds of medical Jeopardy!® to interactive stations where they learn to use a stethoscope, examine a sheep’s brain, and perform virtual brain surgery, the all-day program is designed to show students that careers in science and medicine are within their reach. They don surgical masks and gowns and talk one-on-one with the dozens of Cedars-Sinai physicians and staff members who volunteer at the event.
“The whole project is geared to engage them as much as possible,” says Frank Acosta, MD, director of Spine Deformity and Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery. At the Rehabilitation and Healing station, occupational therapist Aimee Bender and her team unload a shopping cart full of props that demonstrate the role rehabilitation plays for a person who has had brain surgery. Students are challenged to maneuver walkers through a crowded lunch area, play a game of catch while wearing prism glasses that drastically distort their vision, and scoop up beads with adapted utensils. They are even able to taste cups of the thickened liquids that patients with swallowing problems are given after brain surgery.
“It has shock value for the students, and some are grossed out,” says Bender, therapy supervisor in the Department of Rehabilitation. “But it helps give them empathy for those with disabilities. It isn’t until we put them in that situation that they have that ‘aha’ moment.”
Another popular booth is the neuropathology station, where students can hold real sheep’s brains and compare them to detailed diagrams showing how the brain works. Students like Bryan Lopez, 12, listen intently as Jennifer Aye, a research associate in the Department of Neurosurgery, explains which parts of the brain control thought and action. “This big thing is called the cerebellum. It controls all of your coordination,” she says, as Lopez pulls on surgical gloves and gingerly picks up a dissected sheep’s brain.
Plans are in the works to better gauge the effectiveness of Brainworks and develop a tracking system to follow the progress of students through high school. But one thing is clear, according to teachers surveyed at the end of the event: Kids leave with the understanding that a career in medicine is within reach.
The presence of physical therapists, laboratory technicians, and nurses alongside the neurosurgeons adds an extra layer to the event, giving students a broader perspective on their career options, the teachers said.
“Of all the field trips I have attended, this is the most hands-on, interactive environment the kids have been in,” says Toni Agovino, a science teacher at Dana Middle School in San Pedro, who has taught for 12 years. “They usually are not encouraged at this level to participate in such real-world applicable situations. This is driving them toward getting that interest in medicine and science and finding careers in those areas.”
For many students, this is the first time they are exposed to role models outside of the comfort zones of home and school.
Brainworks “meets their educational needs on many different levels,” says Cindy Litman, RN, a regular volunteer who chats with students while she takes their blood pressure at the vital signs station. “But it’s also about letting them know that there are people out there who care about them and care about them getting an education, and it’s not just parents and teachers.”
Jahnae Hicks, a lanky 7th grader with a wide smile from Dana Middle School, took inspiration from Dr. Black’s speech at the beginning of the Brainworks event.
“The world is wide open to you right now,” the surgeon told students in his welcoming remarks. “Imagine what it would feel like to save a life. That feeling is what physicians and nurses get to feel every day.”
Hicks, who wants to be a brain surgeon, gushed that Dr. Black made it seem like “it’s the best feeling in the world to be a doctor and save someone’s life—like winning a marathon or something.”