#StayHomeSTEM: Neuroscience for Girl Scouts — Completing the Brownies “Senses” Badge for Brain Awareness Month

Did you know that March is Brain Awareness Month? Time for some fun family-focused at-home learning all about the amazing brain and nervous system!

For some lists of activities and resources for learning about the brain, see this post from 2020 “#StayHomeSTEM: At-home Learning Activities for Brain Awareness Week” and this post from 2019 “Brain Awareness Week: Neuroscience Education Resources.”

At our house, we’re working on the Brownie “Senses” badge, but we’re expanding on it to focus more on neuroscience, since the Girl Scout badge requirements are focused only on exploring the senses and since our small, informal pandemic “troop” is multi-age (Daisy-Brownie-Junior), with four girls spanning ages 5-12. Therefore, the girls will achieve both their Senses badge and a Neuroscience FUN badge (I found a pretty cute brain patch on Etsy).

I’ve included a description of our plan for the badge below, which integrated science, engineering design, and art. Activities were done virtually or outdoors, with masking and social distancing between households. Many of these ideas came from Dr. Eric Chudler’s book, Brain Lab for Kids and his website, Neuroscience for Kids, as well as from the Center for Neurotechnology at the University of Washington (where I work part-time as an engineering educator and program manager).

We launched our neuroscience journey by attending a live virtual field trip, “Journey into the Brain,” hosted by neuroscientist and educator Dr. Eric Chudler of the Center for Neurotechnology at the University of Washington. A recording of the event is available via YouTube: 2021 Brain Awareness Week Open House Webinar. The first 30 minutes of the webinar are a presentation on the brain for kids in grades 3 and up. The last 60 minutes is a panel with neuroscientists and likely better for grades 6 and up.

Video presentation by Dr. Eric Chudler (90 minutes)

Brain Structure & Function: Next, we focused on understanding the structures and functions of the brain. We watched the short “Brain” video on BrainPop.com and read “How Does the Brain Work” (2-pgs) from the Dana Foundation. We then created our own play-do models that showed the four lobes of the brain, the cerebellum, and the brain stem (as described in the book Brain Lab for Kids by Dr. Eric Chudler).

Next, we created brain hats! We colored-coded the brain hemisphere hat template (credit goes to Ellen McHenry’s Basement Workshop) to match the same colors used in our play-do models to delineate the different lobes. Then, a little cutting and taping, and we had hats that showed where the different parts of the brain are located and what functions they are responsible for, such as logical thinking, speaking, and more.

Neurons & Communication: Next up, we focused on learning about neurons and their role in communication within the nervous system. We watched the “Neurons” video from BrainPop.com. Then, we created neuron models using chenille stems (as described in the book Brain Lab for Kids by Dr. Eric Chudler) and became familiar with the names and function of each part of a nerve cell. You can make neuron models from all kinds of everyday materials. See these ideas from Neuroscience for Kids for inspiration.

We then played a silly game where we modelled the electrical and chemical components of signal transmission within the nervous system. Two kids can hold hands, representing a neuron. The adult can tap the “dendrite” (first kid) and will send a simulated electrical impulse down the “axon” by having the first kid squeeze the hand of the second kid. That kid, representing the “axon terminals” will then send out a chemical message by tossing “neurotransmitters” (squishy toys and pompoms) into the “synaptic gap”, while the other two kids (representing other nerve cells) will try to catch the neurotransmitters in order to receive the signal. Lots of fun!

We watched the “Brainworks: Neuroscience for Kids” TV episode (28 minutes) to help make connections between the kids’ developing understanding of the brain, neurons, and the nervous system. (You can watch a more sophisticated model of this in action in the “Brainworks: Neuroscience for Kids” TV episode starting at 8:29 minutes; BrainPop.com also has a “Nervous System” video).

Neuroscience for Kids episode from BrainWorks (28 minutes)

Brain Health & Safety: When learning about brains, it is important to understand how to keep our own brains healthy and safe. We first conducted an egg drop experiment (as described in the book Brain Lab for Kids by Dr. Eric Chudler) to model how cerebrospinal fluid helps to cushion the brain and protect it from injury. We dropped two plastic containers, each containing a raw egg, from the top of a ladder. One container was filled with water, the other not. This demonstration inspired ideas of how to create a helmet that would protect the brain from impact.

We then talked about what kinds of activities could put the brain at risk of injury. We examined bicycle and ski helmets to examine their design and talked about other kinds of sports where helmets should be worn. Then the kids were set loose with a variety of everyday materials (e.g., tissue paper, packing peanuts, string, tape, cardboard, egg cartons) to design and build a “helmet” that would protect a raw egg from cracking upon impact when dropped from the top of a ladder. (This activity is described in the book Brain Lab for Kids by Dr. Eric Chudler). I love how this activity incorporates engineering design, and the competitive element is fun too.

We then watched the “Brainworks: Kids and Sports-Related Concussions” TV episode (20 minutes). We also brainstormed a list of ways to keep our brains healthy (e.g., wearing helmets, wearing seat belts, sleep, healthy diet, exercise, no cliff diving, careful with pool diving, and no drugs).

Kids & Sports-Related Concussions from BrainWorks (20 minutes)

Spinal Cord Injuries. Next up in our neuroscience journey will be to focus on the spinal cord and what happens when it becomes injured. We will watch the “Spinal Cord” video from BrainPop.com. Our older Scouts will go through the “Hand on a Hot Stove” activity packet from the Life Sciences Learning Center (I adapted the activity heavily as it is intended for secondary students). This activity focuses on understanding the role of sensory neurons, motor neurons, interneurons, neuron pathways, reflexes, and spinal cord injuries that lead to different kinds of paralysis. You can use WikiStix, colored yarn, or just colored markers for these activities. This activity is a great lead-in to learning more about our senses and also helping the Scouts begin to think about their mini-research projects.

For older kids: I also tried out the “A Bang to the Head” lab from Science Take-Out with two of our Scouts. The activity focuses on sports-related concussions and investigates whether a test for a specific protein in blood samples could be used to accurately diagnoses a concussion. This lab incorporates reading, math, graphing, and a pH experiment.

Testing simulated blood plasma samples for the presence of a specific protein that may occur after a concussion injury.

We may follow this segment up by choosing to watch two videos. The 2 minute video “New Hope for People with Spinal Cord Injuries” shows the work of researchers at the UW Center for Neurotechnology helping with rehabilitation of people with paralysis from spinal cord injuries. There will also be the option to watch the “Brainworks: Brain-Computer Interfaces” TV episode (27 minutes).

Video from the Center for Neurotechnology (2 minutes)

Senses Experiments (Brownie badge requirement). [The Brownie SENSES badge can be completed just by doing these kinds of activities]. We read “How Do the Senses Work?” (2-pgs) from the Dana Foundation. Then our Scouts were able to pick an experiment, one for each sense, from the book Brain Lab for Kids by Dr. Eric Chudler. If you don’t have access to this book, many of the same experiments are described on the website Neuroscience for Kids. We explored our sense of taste (taste-testing flavored seltzer water dyed with food coloring), touch (writing our name in braille letters using glue dots), smell (making our own perfumes and playing a perfume board game called “Follow Your Nose”), sight (blind spot testing), and hearing (making and matching shaker cups with different sounds) through these fun experiments. Note that BrainPop.com has short videos for the five different senses.

Mini-Research Projects. Each Scout will be challenged to choose a topic of interest to them for a mini-research project, which can be presented as a poster, slide deck, or video. They have the option of choosing a neurological disease, disorder, or injury (e.g., Alzheimer’s, spinal cord injury, amputation, blindness) or to focus on an area of neuroscience we hadn’t explored in depth (e.g., sleep, memory, optical illusions, etc.).

Additional Resources: There are so many great resources for learning about neuroscience with kids. In addition to the ones already mentioned, there are other BrainWorks episodes on sleep and exercise. The Neuroscience for Kids website is full of readings and experiments to try at home. Also check out their annual neuroscience poetry contest and neuroscience poster contest for kids! I haven’t explored these yet, but I am curious to check out the MediKidz, a series of medical comic books about neurological disorders. Digital versions of some of the books are available through the Epic Digital Library, if your kid has an account. Younger kids will enjoy a read-aloud of the book Your Fantastic Elastic Brain by Dr. JoAnn Deak (just search on Google, there are many read-aloud videos). For middle and high school-aged students, check out the lesson plans and teaching resources from the Center for Neurotechnology and the neuroscience lab kits available from Science Take-out.

#StayHomeSTEM

Photo credit: Kristen Bergsman & Kiley Riffell.

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