Most third graders only meet with a doctor when they see their pediatrician, but 8 and 9 year olds at the Tobin School in Mission Hill receive the chance to interact with medical experts in another way. Since 2015, Brigham neurologists and neuroscientists have brought science to life in local classrooms through the Department of Neurology’s “Brain Science Is Cool” program.
Through interactive lessons and hands-on activities, Neurology faculty, trainees and Harvard Medical School (HMS) students teach key concepts in neuroscience in an engaging and age-appropriate way. During the hourlong session, Brigham neurologists refer to each student as a colleague.
“One experience like this can be life-changing for a child, and that’s my driver,” said Carolyn Bernstein, MD, FAHS, a neurologist specializing in headache medicine who developed the program with movement disorders neurologist Emily Ferenczi, MD, PhD, in partnership with the Brigham’s Center for Community Health and Health Equity.
The students aren’t diagnosing anyone, but by the time the visit is over, they can identify the location and function of the hippocampus in the sheep brain they’ve just dissected. They ask questions such as, “Why do I feel like I’m falling when I fall asleep?” — a phenomenon known as a hypnagogic jerk.
“We wanted to bring the fun and excitement of science to schools, especially those who might not have the resources to have additional science curriculum,” Ferenczi said. “They can aim for any kind of career, and they should know about the exciting things happening in science and medicine just around the corner from them.”
The first part of the curriculum consists of dissecting a sheep’s brain, identifying some parts of the brain and taking questions from the students. The second part is a guided experiment that teaches students to think like scientists.
The program continues to expand in response to increased demand and new topics of interest. This fall, Bernstein met with the Office for Community Outreach for Harvard Medical School to discuss opportunities to grow the curriculum and include HMS. This school year, Bernstein and her team will visit eight third-grade classrooms — the greatest number of sessions since the program started.
She also recently developed a fifth-grade curriculum, “Breathe Clean Air: About Lung Health and the Dangers of Vaping.” The teaching team includes an anesthesiologist, a research scientist and a pathology resident to educate students about what smoking and vaping does to their bodies.
New lessons are also developed for parents and guardians. In October, Bernstein and an integrative nutritionist previously affiliated with the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine ran a breastfeeding workshop. In December, the team plans to host a virtual course for families about how social media and mobile devices affect children’s developing brains.
Learning also goes both ways, noted Claire-Cecile Pierre, MD, vice president of Community Health Programs for Mass General Brigham, explaining that the “Brain Science Is Cool” program provides an important avenue for physicians to better understand and value the experiences of their patients.
“This program serves as an opportunity for us to recognize the rich and diverse expertise of people and communities who have been excluded over and over again based on race, ethnicity, immigration status or gender,” Pierre said. “For the trainees and medical students who join Dr. Bernstein, this is an introduction to community health that we hope will prompt them to look at every order, every medication and every treatment plan with the patient’s context in mind.”