NW Noggin Teams up with Skyview HS

A current of excitement hummed in the Skyview High School biology lab on April 16. Visitors from NW Noggin unloaded real sheep’s brains, about the size of an apple and the color of clay, into metal dissection trays as some 20 high school freshmen, sophomores and juniors looked on.

Brains, brains everywhere—and lots of thoughts to think

After a brief discussion of anatomical structure, Noggin’s Elias Shaw asked, “Who’s ready to cut into some brains?”

A solitary voice rang out: “Wow, I am!”

Noggin, a neuroscience-education organization comprised primarily of advanced college undergraduate and graduate students from the Portland and Vancouver metro areas, was at the school to lead the dissection—the culmination of a weeks-long crash course on brains.

Students had held a real human brain. They’d explored the brain through art projects—crafting a massive neuron from pipe cleaners and modeling brains out of clay. And they learned about drugs’ harmful effects on brains.

But the dissection provided an opportunity for an even more in-depth study. The initial, mid-sagittal cut from frontal lobe to spinal cord caused a few of the more squeamish high schoolers to leave the room. Other students took pictures, but would not touch the wrinkled lump. The enthusiastic ones gingerly guided their scalpels down the longitudinal fissure. Slowly, others also consented to slice through the soft, spongy tissue. I can’t believe I’m doing this, thought sophomore Colby Brown.

After the brains were butterflied, and then quartered, the volunteers discussed the network of ridges and crevices that houses complex circuitry ranging from memory to circadian rhythms.

The lesson was an insight into an obvious if sometimes overlooked organ.

“I knew the brain was important, but it’s already in your head so you don’t think it’s that important because you’re so used to it,” said Brown.

Added freshman Michael Lundgren, “[The dissection is] pretty cool. It’s definitely better than worksheets. You got to see the stuff you see on worksheets and put two and two together.”

The session with NW Noggin was funded through Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programming, also known as GEAR UP. The grant project helps prepare young people become academically, socially and financially prepared for college. Skyview’s GEAR Up site director, Hannah Valenti, approached teacher Angela Fojtik with the idea.

“This has initiated a spark in them,” Fojtik said of the students’ experience with Noggin.

That’s a good thing, according to Noggin’s Angela Johnson, who joined the organization while studying psychology at Washington State University Vancouver.

“We want students to contribute to the field in the future. … We need younger generations interested in science,” she said.

As the students prepared to leave the classroom at the end of the dissection, Shaw asked, “Who’s going to be a neuroscientist?”

A smattering of hands shot up into the air. It didn’t take a neuroscientist to recognize it was a victory.