Science museum event launches neuroscience education program

by Sharita Forrest
Originally published by the Illinois News Bureau

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Brainiacs of all ages are invited to explore the mysteries of the brain and nervous system March 11 during an afternoon of games and activities at the Orpheum Children’s Science Museum in Champaign. The event, F.I.N.D. Orphy, will kick off a new science education outreach program jointly sponsored by the Orpheum and the University of Illinois that highlights the research of the university’s neuroscientists.

The F.I.N.D. Orphy Kick-off Event is among a series of outreach initiatives stemming from Project NEURON – Novel Education for Understanding Research on Neuroscience, which focuses on integrating recent research by U. of I. neuroscientists into science lessons for elementary, middle and high school classes.

Exhibits about neuroscience will debut at the kick-off event. Although residing primarily at the museum, the exhibits will be available for science fairs and other events in local schools.

Orphy, the museum’s mascot and a teaching tool for helping young museum visitors understand science concepts, will be hidden in various locations throughout the museum. Participants will be invited to solve puzzles to find Orphy.

The F.I.N.D. Orphy program follows a small pilot project from 2011 called Faces in Neuroscience Discovery, which highlighted the neuroscientists’ work through an informal seminar series and hands-on activities at the museum.

Project NEURON recently was awarded a $120,000 grant by the National Institutes of Health to develop an educational video game called BrainCASE (Computer Aided Student Exploration): The Golden Hour. The game will teach players about diagnosing and treating various types of brain injuries using tools such as CT scans.

The golden hour is a term frequently used by physicians in reference to the 60-minute period immediately following a head injury, when appropriate treatment can dramatically affect patients’ survival rates.

Although intended for middle school and high school students, the video game will be suitable for anyone interested in brain injuries, said Barbara Hug, a clinical assistant professor of curriculum and instruction in the College of Education at Illinois and the principal investigator for Project NEURON.

When it’s completed, BrainCASE will become a component of Project NEURON’s learning module on traumatic brain injury, which is being taught in some Central Illinois schools’ science classes this year.

Neuroscience topics are “very relevant” for middle and high school students, many of whom know – or are – athletes who have sustained concussions while playing sports, said Isaac Stewart, the life sciences teacher at Fisher Jr.-Sr. High School.

Stewart is among the schoolteachers participating in Project NEURON this academic year, along with biology, anatomy and physiology, and physics teachers from Aurora, Bradley-Bourbonnais, Champaign, Donovan, Mahomet, Metropolis, Oakwood and Urbana.

The Project NEURON learning modules include experiments with fruit flies, in which students investigate how lighting variations impact organisms’ circadian rhythms. In experiments with planarians, a type of flatworm, and with guppies, students learn about the regenerative capacities of the human nervous system and the evolution of color perception, respectively.

“All of the curricular units are developed with a sort of relevance, a focus on something that students can easily apply to their own lives,” Stewart said. “Who wouldn’t want to be able to regenerate a limb if they lost it, like they see in the planarians? Or a nerve, if it were damaged? The students all have friends or acquaintances that are color-blind.”

“Any chance for the students to actually collect data, look at it over the long term, see some changes and then connect it back to the hypotheses they developed, they really enjoy it,” Stewart said. “They respond well because they know that’s a big part of the actual process of doing science.”

Faith Sharp, a fifth-year teacher who teaches at Champaign Central High School and former student of Hug’s, has participated in Project NEURON for three years.

“Project NEURON has given me some amazing teaching resources that get at interesting questions and investigations,” Sharp wrote in an email. “These materials have been adapted to fit curricula for general biology, accelerated biology, and my Advanced Placement biology classes.”

“What I really like about the thematic units is they’re written by teachers for teachers,” said Jim Schreiner, a biology teacher at Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School. “It’s very easy to implement them into our curriculum. I was able to incorporate some of the stem cell planarian units, and the kids were really charged up about that. You could just tell that, overall, they really bought into what we were doing in class. For the most part, I’ve seen an increase in student engagement and test scores across the board.”

Meeting for a two-week workshop during the summer – and four times during the academic year – on the U. of I. campus, the teachers test-drive the learning activities and delve deeper into the research underlying them through lectures and lab tours with the scientists. After implementing the modules or individual lessons in their classrooms, participants share their experiences and techniques.

“The teachers play a large role in helping us modify the curriculum and making it fit into different formats for different teachers and school districts, ” said Donna Korol, one of the Illinois neuroscientists.

Like faculty members at many small schools, Stewart is “a department of one” – the only biological sciences teacher at his school. A former student of Hug’s at Illinois, Stewart is a second-year teacher. Schreiner is a nationally certified science teacher with 25 years’ experience. Both teachers said they welcome the opportunities that the project offers for professional development and collaboration with other teachers in their field.

“It’s nice to be able to go to the U. of I. campus and meet with teachers that are just as motivated as I am, that are interested in learning about neuroscience and have unique perspectives and ideas that can challenge my own thinking on how to implement these curricula and how to teach students what I’m trying to get them to learn,” Stewart said. “It’s great; that level of professional collaboration is oftentimes absent in what I do.”

Teachers’ work with Project NEURON also has spawned opportunities for students at their schools to do volunteer work or engage in research with U. of I. faculty members, Hug said.

Hug, Korol and George Reese, the director of the Office for Mathematics, Science and Technology Education, a unit in the College of Education, are co-leaders of Project NEURON.

Project NEURON is funded by a $1.3 million, five-year Science Education Partnership Award from the National Center for Research Resources, which is a component of the NIH, and by the U. of I.’s Office of Public Engagement.

The F.I.N.D. Orphy Kick-off Event will be 1-3 p.m. at the Orpheum, 346 N. Neil St.

Local schoolchildren in kindergarten-fifth grades are invited to participate in a Build-A-Brain Contest by constructing brains out of recycled and found objects and hiding Orphy in their creations. Participants that bring in a brain they’ve constructed or donate a children’s book get into the opening event free.

Other upcoming events include F.I.N.D. Orphy weekends – June 10, July 8 and Aug. 12 – and a F.I.N.D. Orphy Summer Camp for kindergarten – fifth grade children, July 9-13.

The museum’s hours and more information about F.I.N.D. Orphy events are available at or by contacting the museum’s associate director, Caitlin Kreiman Lill, at 352-5895, ext. 16, or

The event coincides with National Brain Awareness Week, an annual campaign sponsored by the Society for Neuroscience that raises awareness about the progress and benefits of brain and nervous system research, which is to be March 12-18 this year.