Breaking the Bubble: Bringing Neuroscience Education to the St. Louis Community

“Who wants to touch a brain?” 

Photo by: Rehan Choudhury. SLABB participants engage in an interactive demo, learning about electrical impulses in their body.

I expected several girls to raise their hands hesitantly and the others to shy away. Contrary to my expectations, nearly every girl in the room raised her hand, their feet a pinch too short for the lab stools in Rebstock, hands already grabbing for the goggles we loaned. Leading a Sheep Brain Dissection through Washington University’s neuroscience club, Synapse, I passed around forceps, paper towels and brain anatomy worksheets to the eager students. 

As a collaboration between the Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) Institute for School Partnerships (ISP) and the Synapse Scholars program, the Sheep Brain Dissection was one of the numerous mentorship opportunities Synapse provided to local elementary, middle and high schools in the surrounding St. Louis community. This Human Brain Demo brought around thirty female students from Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls to WUSTL’s campus. As we identified parts of the brain and fielded questions about anatomy, college applications,  and gadgets in the Biology Lab, Synapse Scholars provided  an opportunity for WUSTL students to connect with younger students from the greater community and encourage early STEM and neuroscience education.

Over a decade ago, Synapse was founded as an undergraduate club affiliated with SIGN at the WU School of Medicine. Nearly tripling its size in the past decade, the club aids WUSTL undergraduate students in their current and future neuroscience studies by organizing monthly speaker events, physician shadowing opportunities, research panels and student mentorship events. Moreover, students have the opportunity to make a lasting impact on the greater St. Louis community by volunteering for educational programs (i.e. Demo Days, Synapse 101 and Synapse Scholars) and sports rehabilitation programs (i.e. dance, martial arts, swim and open-gym). Students also have the opportunity to volunteer with local neuroscience outreach events, such as the St. Louis Area Brain Bee (SLABB) and events at the St. Louis Science Museum. 

Working with the ISP, two years ago, co-presidents Courtney Chan (WUSTL ‘20) and Eric Song (WUSTL ‘19) created a tracking system to evaluate its community impact, get feedback from local teachers and improve Synapse’s outreach. From 2018 to 2019, Synapse 101, Demo Days and Synapse Scholars served more than 680 local students, an effort involving 140 WUSTL student volunteers hosting 78 visits combined. From 2019 to 2020, co-presidents Sid Rana and Ankit Choudhury continued collecting this data, with the programs serving over 4,000 local students including partnerships with the St. Louis Science Center, involving 147 WUSTL student volunteers hosting 90 visits combined. These programs not only give WUSTL students the opportunity to give back to their communities but introduce younger students the chance to ask college students questions, learn about the brain and explore a world of neuroscience and STEM.

The Synapse Scholars program, the newest of Synapse’s three educational programs, was founded by Sophie Zimbalist in Fall of 2017 (WUSTL ‘20). Serving approximately 120 students each year, Synapse Scholars continues to grow. Reflecting upon its starting moments, Sophie recalls that she had “always been interested in neuroscience and the brain, so when [she] found out that Synapse had an education program that allowed [her] to engage elementary students in the community, [she] signed up immediately!” While Sophie had been involved in Synapse’s Demo Days program in previous years, the two existing educational programs, Demo Days and Synapse 101, were directed at elementary and middle schools. 

As a Demo Days volunteer, Sophie reflects that “elementary school students in particular have a wonderful openness to new ideas if you can get them to focus for a bit and engage with you. I found that they loved the activities and were in awe when we brought in a human brain that had been donated to us from the medical school campus.”

Yet she wanted to know whether it would be possible to sustain and build upon this enthusiasm for more than just an hour at an elementary school level. This sparked her creation of the Synapse Scholars curriculum, which she created to provide a neuroscience education at a higher level to middle and high school students. She spent the summer of 2017 writing lesson plans from scratch. At first, Scholars started small, with several trial visits in the Fall and Spring—by fall of 2018, it expanded to six visits per semester.

Sophie explains, “[Scholars] works with schools that have everything from a basic Missouri State biology curriculum to a full AP anatomy and physiology lab classroom. I wanted students from all backgrounds and scientific levels to have a better sense of how their brain functioned but also how to keep it healthy. The lesson plans vary in topic from brain anatomy (with the famous “real human brain”) to mental health and even brain imaging. The curriculum is purposely left flexible so that it provides students the time to engage and explore based on their own questions and interests.” 

The St. Louis Area Brain Bee (SLABB) has also grown tremendously since its fruition in 2010.  Founded as a passion project for faculty advisor Dr. Erik Herzog, the Brain Bee is an academic competition in which high school students’ understanding of neuroscience is put to the test. The test consists of a written and an oral round with the top tester sent to The National Brain Bee. Turnout met record numbers in 2019, bringing 58 students to compete at WUSTL’s campus. 

Content on the exams are pulled from a book called Brain Facts, which is published by the Society for Neuroscience. The book is described as “a primer on the brain and nervous system,” serving to introduce students to the field and perhaps catalyze a long-term interest. Synapse volunteers assist every year to help run the event, which has produced a history of young winners. SLABB has been particularly pushed by Ankit Choudhury and Sid Rana, current co-Presidents of Synapse. This sentiment resonated seemingly well with the students, as attendance reached an all-time high under Ankit and Sid’s guidance last year. 

“I was passionate about helping out with the Brain Bee as it gave me an opportunity to share my passion for neuroscience with high school students,” Ankit says.  “Through the Brain Bee, we [are] able to show them that Neuroscience is something fun and interesting they can study when they get to college that incorporates all the STEM subjects they are currently learning about. So, basically we are able to show them a fun and interesting way to stay involved with STEM post high-school.” 

While volunteering for SLABB is a fun and fulfilling way for WUSTL students to engage with their community, the true significance of the event is its effect on the young competitors themselves. One student at the 2020 Brain Bee flew in from New York to compete. 

Co-president, Ankit Choudhary explains, “I feel like in high school, students get exposed to the core subjects of Biology, Chemistry, Math, and Physics; but they miss out on some of the more niche and more interesting subjects like neuroscience. I know when I was in high school, I didn’t get any exposure to neuroscience.” 

The competition engages students’ passions for science by pushing beyond what is necessarily available in everyday high school life. While SLABB brings awareness to students’ academic interests, it can also foster students’ other needs as well. High school student groups study together in their preparations for the competition, generating new friendships and a sense of community over their shared work. These study groups can be instrumental in students’ after-school lives, giving them a place to study and the means to find another meal. As SLABB continues into its second decade, Synapse hopes its reach and attendance will continue to grow. The greater recognition of the competition by St. Louis high schools and their students will serve to not only expand students’ exposure to neuroscience, but also the beneficial impacts of these student groups.

As a whole, Synapse seeks to develop these connections between greater St. Louis and the university’s student body. As a current Washington University alumna, Sophie reflects, “Synapse played a large role in my engagement in the St. Louis community by providing a number of educational programs as well as community service opportunities for me to participate in. Synapse also provided a way for me to engage with neuroscience at a reasonably high level without having a major in the department.” 

For me, a senior and current President Emeritus of Synapse, my involvement in Synapse has been a key experience that shaped my college career. It provided me not only with the opportunity to swim with kids, attend engaging research panels and shadow physicians, but the unparalleled chance to see each Hawthorn student put up her ponytail, snap on her gloves and light up when she touched a brain in awe: a moment that I will remember for years to come.

Photo by: Rehan Choudhury. SLABB participants put their knowledge to the test in a neuroscience exam held in Washington University’s Rebstock Lecture Hall.
Photo by: Rehan Choudhury. Washington University Synapse volunteers cheer on SLABB participants as the SLABB 2020 winners are announced.

Written by: Courtney Chan and Harry Arndt
Edited by: Heather Chung

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