TJ Students Use Brains to Reach Kids
It’s 3:45 pm on a Friday afternoon and Glasgow MS students and their instructors — Seong Jang, TJ ’14, Tim Cha, TJ ’15, Srikanth Chelluri, TJ ’14, Jeewoo Kim, TJ ’16, Nihita Manem, TJ ’14, and Irene Song, TJ ’16 — are squeezing each other’s hands as they model the movement of a signal through a neuron. Through fun activities like these, the kids enrolled in this six-week NeuroInspire (NI) session are learning about axons, dendrites, synapses, myelin sheaths, and neurotransmitters. They’re also learning about their own potential.
NI’s number one goal, according to CEO and Director Nathan Kodama, TJ ’13, now a freshman at Case Western Reserve University, is to “motivate kids and show them what the world has to offer.” Neuroscience is the “perfect medium,” he says, because it combines so many sciences and provides so many opportunities for excitement. Activities include creating K’NEX models of neurons (right), performing experiments to illustrate sensory integration and perception, an EMG (electromyography) demonstration, a sheep brain dissection, and numerous interactive discussions and demonstrations. Discussion-based and activity-driven sessions are designed to encourage the creation and sharing of ideas and to inspire passion for learning and thinking.
NeuroInspire was founded when Nathan, Seong, Suhas Gondi, TJ ’13, and Sid Sivakumar, TJ ’13, decided to use neuroscience to excite younger students about STEM. The team launched their program at Kent Gardens ES in May of 2013 and quickly followed it up with programs at Kilmer and Longfellow MS. NI is now fully committed to reaching kids enrolled in schools that are part of FCPS Priority Schools Initiative (PSI), a program targeting high-poverty, low achievement schools for special funding and increased intervention. NI hopes that by focusing on these schools it can help reduce the achievement gap by targeting students who need inspiration the most.
There are ten PSI schools within five miles of TJ; NI held programs at Glen Forest ES in December 2013 and at Glasgow MS in February 2014, with another planned for March. There are five more such schools along the Route 1 corridor; NI was at Woodley Hills ES in the summer of 2013 and plans to return again this summer in order to deepen that relationship before expanding to other schools in the area. As it turns out, the summer sessions are even more effective because of their intensity: meeting for two hours a day for five successive days results in even more learning and bonding.
NI has reduced its instructor-to-student ratio to maximize its ability to reach students. In one of two classes at Glasgow in February there were 6 instructors for 10 students. Would-be instructors need not be neuroscience experts, but they do need to be ready to devote considerable time and effort to NI, to be professional and responsible, and to be able to communicate with, motivate, and gain the trust of the program’s target students. That’s because another one of the program’s top goals is to provide “role models for youngsters who can guide them academically and socially,” according to Nathan, who points out that the instructors also gain a tremendous amount through participating in the program. Nathan’s involvement with NI, for example, has led him to reconsider his career choices in light of where he might have the most impact.
Choosing instructors isn’t the only thing that NI takes seriously. The team is always improving its demonstrations and has even designed some of its own equipment. They also have plans to use the JCIRN prototype to let Glasgow students glimpse the work being done in TJ’s Neuroscience Lab.
Nathan and other graduates have remained closely involved with the TJ students running NI, meeting for two hours each week via Google+ to set objectives and monitor key results. COO and Director Seong leads NI’s on-the-ground operations. Nathan compares working with the NI “dream team” of Seong, a five-member Executive Team, and seventeen instructors to his experience as a member of the famous 2013 Varsity football team that ended TJ’s perennial losing streak. From its user-friendly NeuroInspire website and its Facebook and Twitter pages to its video and flyers (at right) designed to excite middle schoolers, NI projects a thoughtful, professional image that reflects the work it is doing. From an 8th period club, NI has morphed into a non-profit business – 501(c)(3) status pending – with expansion potential and, like the students it is inspiring, a bright future.