Baltimore Brain Connect Reaches More Than 1,000 Students and Families

“Kiss your brain!”

It’s a common refrain from teachers at the Building Educated Leaders for Life (BELL) afterschool program when a scholar gives a great answer or pushes himself to new conclusions. After last week, scholars who kiss their hand and touch their forehead in response likely have a whole new appreciation for why their brains are worthy of affection.

During Brain Awareness Week, 500 local fourth graders showed what they know about the brain and learned new neuroscience concepts through a partnership between the Solomon H. Snyder Department of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, the Kavli Neuroscience Discovery Institute, the International Arts + Mind Lab (IAM Lab), Baltimore City Public Schools, Project Bridge, Art with a Heart, BELL and Port Discovery Children’s Museum.

The partnership set out to educate students about how the brain works and unlock the neuroscience of emotions. In the process, participants created a Baltimore community art project that brings to vivid life the feelings and emotions of Baltimore City fourth graders and senior citizens.

JHU neuroscientists and neuroscience graduate students from Project Bridge joined Art with a Heart and BELL classroom teachers to engage in grassroots science outreach.

“Science outreach benefits students and scientists alike,” said Kevin Monk, co-president of Project Bridge, an organization dedicated to communicating the value of primary science research to the public. “It serves as a reminder that our work has implications beyond the laboratory, and it’s very rewarding to see a student who thinks science is beyond them change their mind and see that not only is science accessible, but it’s exciting, too.”

Teaching artists from Art with a Heart collaborated with Hopkins neuroscientists to develop the arts activities used to bring the science to life and also developed a training video for all volunteer facilitators.

“We wanted to show the crossover between art and science,” said Art with a Heart Program Co-Director Danyett Tucker. “Whenever scientists are working through their ideas, they create models. Building, sculpting and designing helps you learn about function and structure.”

In the classroom, the scientists from Project Bridge started by asking students about the basics of neuroscience: What does your brain feel like? Soft. Squishy. Gooey. Wet. Slimy, they said in one classroom. What is your brain made up of? Cells!

Students were rapt with attention as they learned their brains had not 3, 4 or even 600, but one hundred billion neurons. Scientists and students talked about the brain’s role in making your foot move, how neurons communicate with each other, and ultimately, the role neurons play in our emotions.

“When you learn how your brain works, you realize how different environments can influence your thoughts, behaviors and actions. This makes you realize that things like reducing stress and getting more sleep can enhance learning and help decision making,” said Richard Huganir, director of the JHU Department of Neuroscience.

Once the neuroscience basics were covered, students participated in one of two activities. In some classrooms, students constructed pliable wire and bead sculptures of neurons, color coding their terminal boutons with their thoughtful responses (angry, afraid, happy, excited, sad or hopeful) to five questions:

How do you feel at the beginning of the school day? How do you feel at the end of the school day? How do you feel when you are learning about science? How do you feel when you are making art? How do you feel about your community?

In other classrooms, students created a “What’s on your mind?” art piece. The art project prompted students to read a brief description of how the brain functions and how environmental factors like safety, access to play outdoors, having enough food and sleep and minimizing anxiety in turn affect brain function. Students then depicted their “mind” by drawing and writing on a stylized upper body image. Art with a Heart also led the activity in its programs with senior citizens in Baltimore City, generating dynamic and thoughtful works of art from a wholly different perspective. These images will be curated for an exhibition later in the year.

In both activities, visiting scientists introduced students to the concepts of restorative practices such as mindfulness and deep breathing as ways to boost brain function. While simply smiling or hugging someone can help either party, things like fear, excessive tiredness and hunger can drain brain function and make it harder to be successful.

“It’s about understanding how to be the best for themselves and their community, which may include finding empathy for others who need a brain boost that day,” said Natasha Hussain, scientific director of the Kavli Neuroscience Discovery Institute.

The partners celebrated the last day of Brain Awareness Week with the Baltimore Brain Connect culminating event at Port Discovery Children’s Museum. Just as individual neurons work together to form a brain, event leaders assembled the wire neuron sculptures from students across the city into one collective sculpture—the color-coded beads reminding onlookers of the rainbow of emotions, feelings and people who make up the Baltimore community.
More than 1,000 museum visitors also took part in a variety of Baltimore Brain Connect programming, ranging from scientist scavenger hunts to stress relief tips. The programming and interactions with brain scientists were designed to educate participants about neuroscience concepts like neuroplasticity as well as the impact of emotions and environment on brain function. Pre- and post-event surveys measured these concepts as well as participant interest in science careers and participation in science related programming in the community.

“This is just the beginning of the potential of these partnerships to improve health, wellbeing and learning in Baltimore City,” said IAM Lab Executive Director Susan Magsamen. “We want to bring neuroaesthetics into the mainstream so that teachers, parents, clinicians, and students all have tools to improve their brain function through arts experiences.”

Art Brain Science Creativity Education Johns Hopkins Kavli Neuroscience Sculpture