Discovering the Brain

WSU students engage in community outreach for Brain Awareness Week

As many as 60 Weber State University students dedicated their spring break to community outreach during Brain Awareness Week, hosted by the WSU Neuroscience Program, March 7-11.

In total, these volunteers visited 17 schools across Northern Utah. They gave 51 presentations and reached nearly 1,400 students ranging from preschool to high school. Volunteers teamed up to give 30-minute presentations followed by interactive, brain-related activities aimed at piquing students’ interest in STEM fields. These activities included testing taste perception using skittles, playing with concussion goggles and showing students dissected sheep brains.

Because such a wide range of students were taught during Brain Awareness Week, volunteers with different levels of knowledge could be placed accordingly.

At the elementary school level, volunteers explained basic parts of the brain to students and told fun stories to accompany lessons, including those of Phineas Gage and Mike the Headless Chicken.

Middle school presentations detailed how neurons and neurotransmitters work, while high school students performed their own sheep brain dissections in groups of four or five.

Volunteer Heatherly Valdez was among those assigned to help students with sheep brain dissections.

“I got to go to Clearfield High School and do brain dissections,” Valdez said. “I had a lot of fun being able to help the students as many of them took their first peek into a real brain. Most of them were hesitant to cut into them, but a few dug right in. All of the classes I attended were pretty active as far as questions and stories. It was a lot of fun, and I will absolutely be joining in again next year.”

Meghan Skidmore, WSU Neuroscience student and coordinator for this year’s Brain Awareness Week, was impressed with how engaged students were by the activities.

“It was amazing how many questions some of the students had,” Skidmore said. “It gave the volunteers a good opportunity to use their knowledge.”

According to Skidmore, the Neuroscience Program’s goal for Brain Awareness Week was twofold.

“Our first goal was to get people talking about and understanding the brain,” Skidmore said. “Education and research about the brain are still evolving, so getting kids excited about this as a field definitely helps promote STEM at a young age. Our second goal was to expose these kids to college. During Brain Awareness Week, we try to emphasize Title I schools [schools with a high percentage of students from low-income families] because we want to let students there know that, ‘Hey, college is an option and these are some of the fun things you can do.’”

Skidmore said this year’s Brain Awareness Week also attracted a wide variety of WSU student volunteers from different disciplines, including neuroscience, nursing, psychology, education and health sciences. One thing that stood out to Skidmore was that volunteers seemed to come away from the event having gained just as much as the students.

“It was really great because when we went into these different schools, volunteers came back after the presentations and told me, ‘I didn’t realize we had this kind of population in our community or kids in these types of situations.’” Skidmore said. “It was a really different perspective for them as well as a new way to connect with the community.”

The WSU neuroscience program has received funding for Brain Awareness Week from the Hall Grant for the past few years, and this year received additional funds through donations from community partners such as Wisebird Bookery, AMC Layton 9, UPS store #4469, Crown Shirts, Slackwater Pub & Pizzeria, Nordic Valley, Grounds for Coffee and

“This has allowed us to expand the number of schools we visit,” explained Lauren Fowler, director of the Neuroscience Program.

Brain Awareness Week is a national event created by the Dana Foundation to increase public awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research, and WSU has been participating for 18 years.