Thursday, March 22 , 2018, 7:48 am | Light Rain Fog/Mist 59º


UCSB Psychologists Expand Reach of Brain Science and Safety Outreach Program

“The Brain Lady” talks to third and fourth graders at Santa Barbara Charter School. Click to view larger
“The Brain Lady” talks to third and fourth graders at Santa Barbara Charter School. (Spencer Bruttig / The UCSB Current photo)

Not many kids have the chance to get up close and personal with a real human brain. But in Santa Barbara a growing number are doing just that, thanks to “The Brain Lady.”

Meet Karen Szumlinski, a professor in UC Santa Barbara’s Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, whose “Brainiacs” outreach program to local schools perfectly blends her knowledge of brains and passion for education.

On a visit in late spring to Santa Barbara Charter School, she watched a group of third- and fourth-graders barrel into their classroom from recess to find a whole table of brains, both human and rodent.

Some initial squeamishness quickly gave way to curiosity, and soon enough it was all Szumlinski could do to keep up with their questions.

And that’s how she wants it.

“When kids in the classroom ask interesting questions about the brain and relate it to their own personal experience, it makes me proud of them,” said Szumlinski, who tailors her brain awareness presentation by grade level to foster more complete participation.

“It’s so awesome to be able to see these kids starting to put things together for themselves after just a 15-minute presentation. Of course, their favorite part — no matter what their age — is to actually see the human brains,” she said.

Szumlinski’s own enthusiasm about brains often rivals that of her school-aged audiences.

Holding up a spinal cord for kids to see, she asked what the string-like nerves that had been unwrapped from their protective sheath resembled.

“Hair?” said one student.

“How about the spaghetti you ate for dinner last night?” Szumlinski countered. “Doesn’t the spinal cord remind you of string cheese? Or an electric cord or TV cable? All of these separate stringy things come together in a tight core that travels up your spine.”

For the past five years, Szumlinski and colleague Tod Kippin have brought their outreach program to the campus’s Orfalea Family Children’s Center, teaching 3- to 5-year-olds the basics of brain function while focusing on brain safety.

There, “Eggalicious” was the star of the show as the children marveled over how her helmet protected her skull and kept her “egg brains” from coming out.

Last year, Szumlinski and Kippin set up a booth at Hope Elementary School’s STEM night.

This year, they took over the Hope science classroom for two and a half weeks and filled it with exhibits, dissections and neuron face painting. This way, they were able to present the “Hope for Brains!” neuroscience program to the entire student body, from kindergarten to sixth grade.

“My hope for the very near future is to conduct similar school-wide or organization-based programs all across Santa Barbara and Goleta,” Szumlinski said. “This year, we managed to reach out to two entire elementary schools plus more than 100 preschool children and 150 girls in the afterschool program at Goleta Valley Girls Inc. I envision creating a Brainiac Club to recruit interested graduate and undergraduate students as well as faculty to the cause so we can develop citywide activities that rival brain awareness programs elsewhere in the country.

“In the future, we’d like to hold an open house at UCSB,” Szumlinski added. “Then perhaps junior high students could come and see the MRI scanner we have and get a tour of a real live rodent laboratory, a real live human laboratory and then, if we go across to biology, a real live fly laboratory, so they could get a feeling for how we do neuroscience from the human down to the fly and back again.”

Julie Cohen writes for the UCSB Office of Public Affairs and Communications.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click here to get started >

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >