Last weekend, over twenty high school students from around the area convened in the Class of 1978 Life Sciences Center for the first Upper Valley Brain Bee. Hosted by the Neuroscience Center at Dartmouth and the Society for Neuroscience New Hampshire Chapter, this event would not have been possible without the hard work of Marie Onakomaiya and Alex Bender, the two graduate students responsible for envisioning and organizing this outreach project. Dr. Michelle Sama, coordinator of the Neuroscience Center at Dartmouth, also played a key role in orchestrating the event.
The competition was advertised to high school students throughout the entire Upper Valley, and ultimately students from six different schools competed. Weeks prior to the competition, Onakomaiya and Bender visited these schools to host “Brain Boot Camps” in which students were taught basic neuroscience and neuroanatomy and provided with study materials. After many weeks of preparation, the brainy students were ready to show off their neuroscience knowledge.
In round one of the competition, participants completed a short quiz, identified brain structures on real human brains, and diagnosed “patients” played by volunteers from the Dartmouth neuroscience community. Afterwards, the students had a break for lunch and visited a variety of activity stations run by professors from the medical school. Dr. Rand Swenson showed students brain specimens, Dr. Jeff Cohen and Dr. Alissa Thomas taught participants how to conduct a neurological exam on a patient, and Dr. Olga Emery provided demonstrations illustrating various brain functions. Meanwhile, Dr. Michelle Sama ran a “Color Your Brain” station for younger attendees. These activities concluded with a talk about Parkinson’s disease from neurology professor, Dr. Stephen Lee.
Having patiently waited long enough, the top five scorers from the first round were announced and brought up to the front of the room to compete in round two. This culminating phase was structured similar to a spelling bee: competitors answered questions from three different categories and were eliminated after responding to two consecutive questions incorrectly. Questions were asked by the judges of the event, four members of the Dartmouth neuroscience community (Dr. Allan Gulledge, Dr. Barbara Jobst, Dr. Jeremy Barry, and myself).
Jane Plomp, a 9th grader from Lebanon High School, took first place and will have the opportunity to compete in the National Brain Bee held in Washington, DC, next March. Molly Cornell, an 11th grader from Hanover High School, won second place, and Morgan Keller, a 12th grader from Lebanon High School, won third place.
Onakomaiya and Bender certainly accomplished their initial goal, which was “to introduce neuroscience to local high school students and provide a way for them to have fun learning about the brain,” says Bender. Based on everyone’s fantastic performance throughout the competition, it is evident that participants learned a great deal of information. Onakomaiya and Bender received a lot of positive feedback and hope that the Upper Valley Brain Bee will become a yearly tradition here at Dartmouth. Onakomaiya notes that “this year’s participants have already expressed interest in doing it again next year and will be recruiting their friends to join them.”
by Max Mehlman