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.