My 5th grade Gifted & Talented project was all about the brain. I was fascinated by all of its functions and cerebral folds. I loved how it wasn’t so much the size of the brain that was important, but the complexity of its neural networks. My project included a form core board with light bulbs placed on a hand drawn man, representing the different body regions affected by the fight or flight response. I wonder if my parents could have foreseen that I would later be pursing a PhD in neuroscience and leading a project very much related to my fight or flight poster. What they probably could have guessed is that I would not be in graduate school today if I hadn’t been exposed to science in such a genuine way in elementary school.
You can find me over at the Columbia Daily Tribune today with an article as part of the weekly “Ask A Scientist” column. This project was developed out of the cooperation between Columbia Public Schools and the University of Missouri Office of Science Outreach. Local elementary, middle, and high school students submit questions about science, and MU graduate students work with the Office of Science Outreach to interview MU researchers and write articles to answer the students’ questions. Participating in this project has been not only fun but surprising in several ways. I’ve been extremely impressed by the nature of the questions asked by the students. Some questions probe advanced concepts in fields such as genetics (“If monkeys are our cousins, how much of our DNA do we share?”) and astronomy (“What are dark energy and dark matter, and how are they related?”). I’ve also been surprised by how willing the scientists and physicians at MU have been to sit down and discuss their research with us. These researchers are passionate about their work, and they are excited to share about it with the public, especially K-12 students.
Why is a project like “Ask a Scientist” so important? It gives students a way to extend the knowledge they are getting in the classroom. They are given opportunities to reach out of their textbooks and engage with real scientists doing real science. They are getting a peak into fields like physics and chemistry, the way I got a glimpse of neuroscience in 5th grade. It’s important to realize that these aren’t just students with whom we are sharing about science, many are (hopefully) future scientists themselves, and they may not even know it yet.