From Play-Doh to Slinkies, an engaging introduction to the basics of the brain

The Kids Judge! Neuroscience Fair brought West Philadelphia fourth graders and Penn neuroscience students together for a morning of hands-on fun.

Elementary school students looking at sections of sheep brain
Siani Smith and her fellow students got a close-up look at sections of a sheep brain. 

As fourth grader Syamir Jackson peered at a diagram of the various parts of the brain, neuroscience graduate student Greer Prettyman asked him what he knew about the body’s most complex organ. 

“It’s the one thing that controls everything!” he exclaimed. 

Prettyman nodded, smiling. Using the palm-sized, rainbow-hued stress-ball-like squishy brain she held in her hand, she started pointing out the places where individual actions are controlled: Vision at the back, hearing and memory on either side, basic functions like breathing in the mid-brain. She then pointed each spot out on the coloring page sitting in front of Syamir, encouraging him to shade them in.  

Around them, knots of fourth graders from Global Learning Academies Southwest (GLASW), a West Philadelphia charter school, clustered around other tables staffed by Penn graduate and undergraduate students. Each station featured a different hands-on activity aimed at teaching the children a new thing about the brain and how it works. 

For more than a decade, the Kids Judge! Neuroscience Fair has brought local elementary students to Houston Hall for an experiential introduction to neuroscience. Last Friday the younger students learned from Penn neuroscience graduate students and undergraduates in the Biological Basis of Behavior (BBB) Program, as well as a handful of students from Paul Robeson High School who are working with BBB students as part of a course.  

An elementary school student and a Penn graduate student talking about the brain.
Syamir Jackson and Greer Prettyman talked about different parts of the brain and what they control. 

While Syamir and Prettyman talked, other students were listening to BBB lecturer Mike Kaplan explain how the cells in your ear canals turn vibrations into a signal for the brain. After giving his group Slinky toys to wiggle in pairs, he had them move farther apart to demonstrate how the tone of the sound changes depending on the length of the spring. 

To help them understand why having two ears is so important, he had them close their eyes. Then he stomped and growled like a bear, asking the kids to point to where he was. 

“If both ears heard the same thing, you wouldn’t know where to look,” he said. 

At still another table, Jessica Liu, a junior BBB and French major from Baltimore, gave the students Play-Doh and plastic brain molds to press the clay into. The wrinkles are called gyri and sulci, she told them, part of the larger effort to expose students to the technical terms while explaining the concepts much more simply. 

As they wrapped their soft “brains” in plastic wrap—a stand-in for the three tissue layers, called meninges, that envelop the brain and spinal cord—she explained how a brain injury isn’t like a bone fracture or a tendon sprain. Liu encouraged the kids to wear helmets when biking or skating to keep their brains safer. 

Elementary school students making brains out of Play-Doh
The youngsters molded brains out of Play-Doh, then dashed them on the ground to simulate a traumatic injury. 

“If you drop your phone without a phone case, you know what happens,” she said. “If you don’t want that to happen to your head, you have to wear a helmet.”

Then, she had them throw the wrapped “brains” to the floor. Those protected by Styrofoam cups, the substitute for a bicycle helmet, were less dented than those without. 

“In real life, your skull doesn’t always do the job of protecting your brain from serious injury,” she said. 

Real sheep brains took center stage at Kyra Levy and Michelle Klima’s station. They’re both students in the neuroscience Ph.D. program, and they had soft sections of sheep brain for the youngsters to look at, as yet another way to explain the differences between a cerebellum and an occipital lobe. 

Pointing to the cerebral cortex, Klima said, “human brains have a lot more wrinkles here,” a sign that there is more power for processing information in people. 

Graduate student demonstrating where the brain stem is on another graduate student
Sydney Cason (right) demonstrated the location of the brain stem on Jessica Schwarz. Both are Ph.D. students. 

Other stations focused on the eyes, the concept of the synapse, and the left-brain-right brain divide and how it impacts how people move and think. 

At the station focused on taste buds, students sipped salty liquid and tasted sour berries, to isolate the different taste sensors on the tongue. 

After the students had toured every station, they came back together for a pop quiz about what they’d learned. Kane asked the students basic questions, such as which hand the left brain controls and the name of two lobes of the brain. 

With every correct answer, the older students burst into applause, excited to know their work had paid off. 

The local fair was sponsored by the BBB program, based in the School of Arts and Sciences, and the Mahoney Institute for Neurosciences at the Perelman School of Medicine. Kids Judge! is a national program to help scientists become better communicators. 

Elementary school students with model brains
Students like Anijah Tucker-Hill tried different-sized brains on for size, trying to guess which model was to human scale.