A tube from a vacuum cleaner was the neuron or nerve cell. Green pipe cleaners were the dendrites. And a set of dominoes stood in for how the “action potential” resets the cell so that a new memory can be created.
Those simple props were enlisted by JohnPaul Deviglia, Jasmin Haffees and other engaging biology majors from Southern Connecticut State University as they administered a “Flame Challenge” to groups of seventh and eighth-graders in John Garcia’s science class Wednesday afternoon at the King-Robinson Inter-District Magnet School on Fournier Street.
The Flame Challenge is an annual contest organized by actor Alan Alda and his foundation to inspire scientists to explain complex ideas in terms that a bright 11-year-old might understand.
As a student earning her PhD at the University of Florida in 2011, Meghan Barboza participated in the challenge. Now, as an assistant professor at Southern, she modified the approach — the official competition is restricted to professional scientists — by incorporating as part of her physiology class a requirement that her students stand in as scientists and explain a complex scientific phenomenon to middle-school kids.
Barboza chose “memory.” That’s why the class Wednesday ended up sniffing from four different vials being passed from hand to hand.
The exercise, organized by Chris Wojtas and his team — including Mohamed Khatib and Stephany Santibanez — was designed to demonstrate the differences between short-term, working, and long-term memory.
Wojtas called the vials “essential oils”—rose, lime, peppermint, and orange. They were teaching tools designed to trigger memory of mints or sweets or whatever was associated with each.
“Oils act on the limbic system to trigger memory,” Wojtas said.
Ariana Davis said one reminded her of window cleaner.
Stephany Santibanez said in her part of the presentation, she labored not to use the phrase “limbic system,” because avoiding complicated terminology and especially jargon is at the heart of the Flame Challenge.
She said preparing for the lesson did enable her to stick with essentials and to check her understanding.
That was particularly the case for Jessica Surrat, who with Deviglia, Caroline Klepacky, and Haffees, led them through not only becoming explainers, but learning themselves through the act of explaining.
“You get to a point in college when you want to pass the tests, but for this project I had to go more in depth for my understanding, You can think you know something [deeply] but you really don’t.”
For example, until she helped prepare the ten-minute lesson she and her team presented, she thought the neuron was the seat of the memory. That is, more neurons, more memories.
“I learned more receptors, not more neurons,” she said. That is, that each time chemicals send a charge through the neuron, they create a receptor related to what the stimulus is — like rose oil or apple pie, or the food aromas from Thanksgiving that the kids mentioned to their young teachers.
When that aroma is inhaled again, that receptor that was created is triggered once again. The more triggering, that is, the more repetition, the stronger that receptor is. That took explainer Mohamed Khatib to remind the students that when they want to do well on a test—which uses short-term memory—it’s best to practice a week before, so that the receptors that hold the info will be there and strong.
“If you repeat it, it lasts,” he said.
Barboza said her students came away from the experience with a deeper understanding indeed: not only of how the chemicals in the cell and the physiology of the parts work, but also that a “memory” is not a gauzy, funny, spiritual-type thing floating around in there, but an actual physical change in the brain.
She plans to repeat the challenge she said in the future, incorporating it into her curriculum in years to come at Southern.
King/Robinson science teacher John Garcia also said he “absolutely” wants the young teachers back in his classroom. The seventh-grade science curriculum calls for kids to learn the structures of the body and the various cell types, so the day’s lesson was spot on, he added.