The 17th annual Brain Awareness Day was held at the Orpheum Children's Science Museum in Champaign on April 15, 2017. More than 20 research groups and laboratories from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign participated, presenting various exhibits related to neuroscience. More than 430 elementary and middle school students from across east central Illinois spent the afternoon, along with their parents, learning about the brain through the engaging activities and interactive demonstrations.
Since 2001, the university’s Neuroscience Program (NSP), a graduate program within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, has hosted Brain Awareness Day each spring. The goal of the event is to educate the community about neuroscience and relevant research by offering children and grown-ups an opportunity to “look into their brains.” This local Brain Awareness Day event is part of the larger Society for Neuroscience’s Brain Awareness Campaign, a worldwide celebration of the brain that brings together scientists, families, schools, and communities.
To reach out to young students, the NSP sent flyers about Brain Awareness Day, in both English and Spanish languages, to elementary schools within the region. Information about the event was also listed online at chambanamoms.com, said Megan Mahoney, associate professor of comparative biosciences, NSP faculty, and one of the event’s organizers.
“We want to give children an appreciation of the University of Illinois and the research going on here, and give them a better understanding of how the brain works,” said Mahoney.
Brain Awareness Day never lacks volunteers, from undergraduate and graduate students to professors, and this year was no exception. Although many research groups return each year with their signature brain-themed booth, organizers work hard to recruit groups with unique neuroscience research to participate. For instance, the Body Composition and Nutritional Neuroscience Lab of Dr. Naiman Khan, assistant professor in kinesiology and community health, focuses on how nutrition affects cognition. His lab hosted a booth for the first time to “improve our reputation for having fun studies for children and potentially expand participation in our research studies,” said Linda Steinberg, research coordinator for the lab.
Another popular new exhibit for 2017 was called “Robots Made of Living Parts.” Parts neuroscience, engineering, and biology—and all innovation—after seeing this exhibit at the 2017 Beckman Institute Open House, organizers invited Dr. Martha Gillette’s Clockworks Lab to participate at Brain Awareness Day. The lab’s PhD and graduate students were delighted to demonstrate the potential to build living, multicellular machines that solve real-world problems in health, security, and the environment. The lab’s working robot attracted many children and helped them better understand how it used actual muscle cells to operate.
Variety and innovation are two reasons Brain Awareness Day continues to be successful. “We reach out as best we can, and are constantly looking for new way to keep the community engaged,” said Manuel Hernandez, assistant professor of kinesiology and community health, NSP faculty member, and lead organizer of the event.