Monday, December 3, 2012

The UAA Brain Bee: A New Look at the Neuroscience of the Brain!

Caroline Wilson, an Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences and faculty with WWAMI, found a way for UAA students and Anchorage high school students to get interested in a particular kind of science - an enrichment opportunity that gets to the base of who we are and why!  The Brain Bee is an internationally recognized program that was founded by Dr. Norbert Myslinski at the University of Maryland.  It motivates students to learn about the brain, to capture their imaginations and inspire them to pursue careers in biomedical brain research Currently there are 150 locations worldwide that hold Brain Bees, and in 2011, UAA joined them! 
Brain Bee participants
Professor Wilson came to UAA from Dennison University, which had a very big Brain Awareness Week as a part of their regular programming.  Upon arriving here in Anchorage, she heard about the opportunity for community engagement grants when she and this Director met at the Cross Cultural Immersion Project sponsored by the Alaska Humanities Forum.  Wilson added the community engagement component to her Biology A490 class and set goals for the first Brain Bee:
1) Enrich the high school curricula to an understanding of the neuroscience of the brain.
2) Implement community engagement in a Bachelor of Science undergraduate setting.

One issue that arose immediately was the difficulty of creating an entree into the high school science program, but Polaris High School was very interested.  There were 30 UAA students, and they had the choice of going out to present information to the high schoolers, assisting at the Brain Bee event in March, or making posters about the brain for a library poster display.  Wilson laughs about the difficulty in planning a new event when you're not a planner! 
The Brain Bee incorporates 10 short answer questions from a guide that is used internationally, and 3 UAA faculty functioned as the judges.  Eight high school students participated from six area high schools, and cash prizes of $100, $75, and $50 were given to the top three students.  The second annual Brian Bee is scheduled for February 16, 2013 with plans for more student participation on both the high school and university sites!  The winner this year will travel with a parent to the National Brain Bee competition in Washington D.C. just a few weeks after the Anchorage competition.

Chester Creek Water Quality Monitoring with Biology 373

Professor Frank von Hippel received a minigrant in spring 2012 to re-engage Biology 373 students with the Russian Jack Community Council and the Anchorage Waterways Council in a project focused on the reassessment of water and habitat quality.  Students were involved with replicating analyses conducted by earlier classes (2001-2005 and 2009) for before and after restoration comparisons; assisting with new analyses using stable isotope techniques to test for the presence of marine-derived nutrients in the system; and making recommendations for future restoration work with a damaged portion of the creek.  Prior studies found there were indications of "potential human health impacts and reduced species richness due to degradation of the watershed.
Students in Biology 373
Professor von Hippel is a proponent of community-engaged learning and has found in the years that he has been teaching in this way that a number of his students were able to use this specific experience to get jobs in water monitoring and to get interested in this field.  He stated, "Prior to 2001, I taught water quality assessment using laboratory exercises.  Student evaluations since 2001 clearly indicate the power of teaching these techniques in a field setting with real-world applications."  The intention this year was to assess the impacts of the restoration of Westchester Lagoon on upstream habitat in Chester Creek and to leverage the work already completed to develop a restoration plan for the impaired section of the Creek in the Russian Jack area.  With nearly of decade of data already compiled, a plan can be presented for community approval and subsequent funding requests will allow students to engage in restoration activities.

von Hippel commented on the demands of engaged learning with real life projects.  Data quality is a concern in that student data has to be as good as faculty data if it is going to be used by the community for policy work or for publication; it requires considerable faculty time and oversight.  He or a graduate student collect their own water chemistry data for comparison purposes and look at student data right away to redo what seems out of the realm of possible or probable, and for the invertebrate data, they are alongside students as they record data.  They use occasions to teach critical thinking in the moment by looking at what students have done and asking, "Does this make sense?"  Most of the data issues experienced in the early years were solved by switching to a simpler chemistry kit.  A CCEL grant made it possible in the beginning to pay for supplies and a student helper, and the minigrants still assist with the costs of the monitoring kits.  Long-term commitment to this project has made it possible for students to see the before and after impacts of the environmental intervention with the Westchester Lagoon and to deepen the relationship with the community partners.