URI doctoral students’ Brainy Adventure to help teach school students about brain science

KINGSTON, R.I. – April 6, 2021 – We may not know it by name, but executive functioning is something we use every day. It helps us to remember information, gives us the flexibility to multitask, and helps us control our attention, behavior and thoughts.

“It’s responsible for all of our decisions and is the basis for all of our behavior,” said Sydney Bartman. “Without it, our behavior would be random and without context. It allows us to properly interact with our world, and make decisions based on past and current interactions.”

For Bartman, team leader Jennifer Mattar and Lauren Thompson, doctoral students in the University of Rhode Island’s Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program, executive functioning is their way of connecting with K-12 students and teaching them about the brain as part of the recent Brain Week RI.

Canceled last year because of the pandemic, Brain Week RI was fully virtual this March, attracting more than 100 people to each of the public online events. In-person events – such as URI’s annual Brain Fair – were replaced with lunchtime discussions and nightly plays over Zoom. The event’s annual in-person school outreach was replaced by Brainy Adventures, seven virtual lesson plans that school teachers can access online throughout April and present to their students.

The URI students joined teams from Brown University, Providence College, Roger Williams University, and Bryant University, in developing the Brainy Adventures. Each lesson plan provides full packets of materials and instructional videos, making it easy for teachers to present the lessons with no experience in the subject. Through April, teachers can request the materials at Brain Week RI and also sign up for a virtual visit from one of the scientists who designed the lessons.

Mattar, Thompson and Bartman focused on executive functioning because they felt it would be interesting to students of all ages, while providing a number of assessments that would be fun and easily adaptable for online learning.

“Brain Week helps to raise awareness of neuroscience in general as well as neuroscience research happening in Rhode Island,” said Thompson. “Executive functioning and cognition are becoming increasingly popular areas of research, and it’s helpful for people to understand how executive functioning and cognition relate to other aspects of daily life.”

For the trio, their work in the neuroscience program intersects with executive functioning. Thompson, of Narragansett, has worked on executive functioning studies and reviews under Professor Lisa Weyandt. Thompson’s research focuses on the relationship between executive functioning impairments and mental health disorders. Bartman, of Newport, studies aging and its relationship to mitochondrial dysfunction and epigenetics in the lab of Professor Jamie Ross. And Mattar, of Coventry, studies lifestyle factors and genetic contributions to neuro-degenerative diseases in the lab of Professors John Robinson and William Van Nostrand.

Their Brainy Adventure – “What’s the Scoop on the Stroop?” – explores the three domains that make up executive functioning: working memory, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility. The lesson provides assessments students can conduct on each other or family members. Later, they can share their findings with classmates, comparing results by age or gender.

“The assessments are very common and well-validated in the clinical community,” said Mattar. “Some students may have been administered some of these tests in school. A school psychologist might use them when children are having any kinds of trouble in the classroom with performance or attention.”

Also, the assessments are fun. The one that examines inhibitory control – the Stroop test – asks students to read a list of words for colors, which are also printed in colored type. The first time through, the students read aloud the words as fast as they can in 45 seconds; the second time, they must read the color of the words.

“It’s funny. The kids mess up and they can’t believe that their brain can’t do it because they’re so confident,” said Mattar, who filmed the instructional videos for the assessments while administering them to her daughter. “These assessments were something I thought, being a mother, that would be applicable and fun for kids. Even the administrators who have been overseeing this said they had so much fun doing it with their kids while giggling.”

But the assessments also teach the students what it’s like to be a scientist.

“It’s really crucial that we break down the barrier of the what the belief of STEM fields is for kids,” Mattar said. “A lot of people, kids in particular, are very intimidated by science. They think it’s very rigid and very abstract and not particularly relatable. But by empowering kids to do things themselves and ask creative questions, it removes the anxiety some kids may feel about science and technology. And playing with games is how most children learn. So, this is a great way.”

With the annual in-school visits not possible this year, Brain Week RI co-chairs Victoria Heimer-McGinn and Oluwarotimi Folorunso, and executive committee member Torrey Truszkowski organized the Brainy Adventures with local universities and colleges, which had done some of the in-school visits.

“We decided to tap into that wealth of knowledge and see if those teams were willing to go the extra mile and create experiments for the students to do,” said Heimer-McGinn, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Roger Williams University. “Right now, teachers have too much on their plates. We wanted materials that didn’t give them extra work and provided science-related skills that students would benefit from.”

“Throughout the planning for this year’s events, we had one thing in mind – to make it fun and interactive,” said Folorunso, Ph.D., a post-doctoral research fellow at McLean Hospital at Harvard Medical School. “Kids are on Zoom all day. We wanted to have something they could touch, something they could interact with. The experiments give them something they can do themselves and learn from.”

With the annual in-person visits, volunteer teams met with between 500 and 2,000 students, depending on the number of volunteers available. Heimer-McGinn expects the number for Brainy Adventures to be on the higher end. So far, about 750 students are taking part in the lessons.

The lesson plans will be posted on the Brain Week website indefinitely, but teachers have through April to request a virtual visit from one of the scientists who created them.

“Some kids have never talked to a scientist,” said Mattar. “So, they just want to ask general questions: Why did you want to be a scientist? What kind of scientist are you? How can I be a scientist? That’s kind of what we’re hoping we’ll hear.”