Annual Brain Expo Helps Kids Get Excited About Science

Apr 5, 2019

At the 11th annual Brain Expo, Marshall University sophomore Katie Ghiz is showing fourth graders a video to test how well they pay attention.

You might have seen the video before – in it, six people – three in white shirts, three in dark shirts, pass a basketball. The viewers have to count how many times the people in the white shirt pass the ball.

Most people who watch the video get the count right – or pretty close to right. What they don’t notice is that halfway through the video, a person in a gorilla suit walks through the group, starts dancing, and then leaves out the other side of the frame.

Ghiz is one of about 200 Brain Expo volunteers from Marshall University with community partners. The expo is designed as an opportunity to bring science out of the classroom and give third to sixth graders hands-on learning.

Elementary school students learn about addiction at the 2019 Brain Expo at Marshall University
Credit Kara Lofton / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“It’s sort of a reverse science fair set up. We have a bunch of stations that teach about the brain and nervous system – how to take care of it, what it does for you,” said professor Nadja Spitzer, who oversaw the expo. In a large conference room, volunteers manned 26 stations that 800 elementary school students filtered through in shifts over the course of a morning.

“A lot of times if you’re just learning science in a classroom out of a textbook, it can become very abstract, and here you learn about it has to do with you, it’s relevant to you,” said Spitzer. “How well you shoot that basketball is dependent on how well your brain is working and it kind of puts it in a different perspective, a more exciting perspective.”

An elementary school student learns about drugs at the 2019 Brain Expo at Marshall University
Credit Kara Lofton / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Payton Workman, a fourth grader at Dingess Elementary School, visited a station where a volunteer piped tiny worms that normally live in water into petri dishes filled with substances, such as caffeine, alcohol and nicotine. The kids could see in real time how the worms reacted to each of the substances, which prompted conversations about how addiction works and impacts the brain.

“[I learned] that when they’re in alcohol or something they move around a lot,” she said. “They’re really active.”

Spitzer expects that the excitement the kids feel learning in a hands-on environment like this will stick with them and they’ll want to study science in the future.

2019 Brain Expo at Marshall University
Credit Kara Lofton / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“There are several kids who came to the first couple of expos who are now students at Marshall, which is awesome,” she said.

Spitzer said elementary schools come to the expo from all over southern West Virginia, and that every year registration fills up. She said she’d loved to grow it, but that they’re already in the biggest room on campus. So instead, a couple of times a year, Marshall students put on mini-expos by going to elementary schools, setting up stations in the gym, and letting the whole school come and learn.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from Marshall Health and Charleston Area Medical Center.