Kids are used to using their brains, but it’s rare that they hold one.
It’s so rare, that’s one of the favorite activities at an open house for middle-school students at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring during Brain Awareness Week, which was celebrated nationwide March 11 to 17.
Outfitted with purple nitrile gloves, students could hold a real brain, look at its parts and feel the weight of a lifetime’s learning under the watchful eye of the museum’s brain collection manager, Archie Fobbs.
“It was cool — different than I expected,” Molly Quinn, a seventh-grader at Our Lady of Lourdes School in Bethesda, said. “I thought the color would not be as tan. I thought it would be more pink,”
Joanne Odenkirchin, from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health, helped students take off the protective gloves and soothed those who were leery about touching the specimen. “It’s not brain juice,” she told the students of the liquid dripping from the brain. “It’s alcohol.”
She said the activity had a serious purpose.
“It’s great to get more kids interested in the brain,” she said.
There were several other activities going on as seventh-grade students from Our Lady of Lourdes and their teacher Pat Stallsmith spent the morning of March 13 at the museum. Stallsmith said the program fit into her students’ life sciences curriculum, in which they learned about the skeleton, muscles and bones but had yet to study the brain.
There was a slide show called “Mysteries of the Brain” and visuals demonstrating the connection between the eyes and the brain, called “More Than Meets the Eye.”
“Alcohol and the Developing Brain” used a chicken-wire brain with flashing lights to illustrate neuron connections in a normal brain and different flashes to show the effects of alcohol on the brain.
Scientists and staff members from local science institutes, most connected with the National Institutes of Health, conducted the activities, teaching and answering questions as student groups came through the sessions.
“The event, which takes place during Traumatic Brain Injury Awareness Month, seeks to educate middle school students about traumatic brain injury, brain anatomy, etc., through fun hands-on activities,” Melissa Brachfeld, public affairs specialist at the museum, wrote in an email.
Brachfeld said the museum holds the world’s largest collection of brains, which makes it a natural for holding special events during Brain Awareness Week.
Middle school students from throughout the Washington, D.C., area were invited to take part. Close to 550 students from 17 different school groups took advantage of the opportunity, Andrea Schierkolk, public programs manager at the museum, said.
“Middle-school students get to meet actual neuroscientists and we hope this will inspire them to pursue the sciences, perhaps even to inspire a whole new generation of neuroscientists,” Schierkolk said.
In another activity, two brain-shaped game markers — one red, one blue — moved along a felt race track as student teams shouted out answers to brain-themed questions. They hoped their marker would reach the finish line first in the Brain Derby, a loud competition coordinated by scientists from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and focused on the effects of abused drugs on the brain and body. Students answered multiple-choice questions with scientists offering information to steer them to the right choices.
“I really liked the Brain Derby because it taught me things I did not know,” Helena Orrego, a seventh-grader at Our Lady of Lourdes School, said.
National Brain Awareness Week was started in 1996 by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, a nonprofit organization committed to advancing brain awareness. Traumatic Brain Injury Awareness Month was started in the late 1980s by the Brain Injury Association of America.
“Brain injury is a silent epidemic,” said Greg Auotte, director of consumer services for the Brain Injury Association. “The Center for Disease Control just come out with new statistics: 3.5 million people sustain brain injuries each year.”
Andi Sachs of Rockville has worked as a docent at the library for more years than she can remember and especially enjoys Brain Awareness Week.
“It really is fun,” she said. “They get that this is cool. That’s really what you want them to leave with.”