Graduate student demonstrates how to throw a bean bag

ICD outreach program educates youth about brain development

Project aims to inspire children and adolescents to value science

Graduate students in the Institute of Child Development (ICD) are educating young people about brain development and cognition through Growing Brains, a developmental neuroscience outreach program that aims to inspire children and adolescents to value science and to give them a sense of agency in their own development.

Through the program, which was started in 2017 by ICD PhD students Shreya Lakhan-Pal and Keira Leneman, volunteer developmental psychology graduate students visit learning communities in the Twin Cities metropolitan area to give 60-minute lessons about the developing brain. The curriculum covers concepts like brain structure and function, brain development across time, and how experiences can shape the brain’s developmental trajectory. 

Lessons include presentations and interactive activities, including brain specimens to highlight different areas of the brain, a bean bag toss to demonstrate neuroplasticity, and an eraser with pins to explain how the sensory cortex is organized. While lessons typically target fourth to eighth graders, they can be adjusted for other age ranges and abilities.

“Growing Brains hopes to inspire interest in science, but our core mission is about more than that,” says Lakhan-Pal. “Growing Brains is about showing kids and teens how they can take charge of their own development. Our brains are malleable, and that means we can make choices to shape how our brain grows!” 

Now in its third year, Growing Brains has presented in elementary and middle school classrooms and at the Bell Museum’s Spotlight Science event. In the future, the program will expand to lower-resourced schools and learning communities that have less access to science-based programming. 

“We are driven to actively build relationships with communities that have less access to extra-curricular resources,” says Leneman. “We believe this is critical to fostering the next generation of scientists and creating inclusive spaces for diverse voices in research.”

Story by Cassandra Francisco | Photos by Lauren Hernandez, Mounds Park Academy | Spring/Summer 2020

To learn more about Growing Brains or to schedule a lesson, visit z.umn.edu/growing-brains or z.umn.edu/gbinquiry.