Fifth-graders from seven area school districts bustled into the CUB ballroom recently for the third annual Kids Judge! Neuroscience Fair. After the participants met with their brain team-neurons, dendrites, boutons, memory, synapses-they made a visit to the Jell-O brain station where they chose from a variety of anatomically correct flavored gelatin brains.

And then to work. Clipboards in hand, the children evaluated 14 educational models developed by Washington State University NEURO 430 students, faculty, and graduate students.

The projects focused on hands-on activities through which students could learn about the function and physiology of the brain. David M. Rector, assistant professor in the Department of Veterinary and Comparative Anatomy, Pharmacology, and Physiology (VCAPP), who teaches the NEURO 430 course, emphasized creating projects simple enough for fifth-graders to understand.

“It’s crucial that scientists are able to communicate complex ideas in a way that is understandable to the general public,” says Rector.

The first-place winner for the Blue project division was “Sense of Touch,” by senior pre-med student David Barberdi. He constructed a wooden peg board with rubber bands and balls to show the kids how stretch receptors work. When pressure was applied to the rubber bands, a pair of wooden blocks opened a gate that allowed the ions (the balls) to flow through the gate, thus signaling the brain.

In the Green division, undergraduates Mariya Rupp and Chelsey Tadema won first place with their model, “The Axonal Highway.” Their project taught the kids about proteins that are responsible for transporting things long distances along tracks called microtubules. The kids themselves became the transported objects, and raced down the rope-like tracks to deliver their chemicals to and from the cell body.

The student judges based their evaluation of each model on how well they understood the concept being demonstrated, how well the students explained the concept, and if the model was “fun.”

“Fear Factor” by Starla Meighan won first place in the faculty division by demonstrating the brain’s fight or flight response. The highlight of “Fear Factor” was an eight-foot boa constrictor. Also, a laboratory rat was a popular attraction at the exhibit, “How to Use Your Rat Brain.”

The NEURO 430 students were competing for a trip to Washington D.C., where the best project will be presented before neuroscientists at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. The Kids Judge! event, sponsored by the VCAPP, the WSU President’s Office, the Dana Alliance Brain Initiative Foundation, and the National Kids Judge! Partnership, coincided with National Brain Awareness Week, March 14-20.

The fifth-graders completed surveys before and after the event to evaluate their perception of neuroscience. Even if they do not remember where the cerebellum is located, many of them returned to their elementary science classes with a newfound passion for science.

“In the course of one day,” says Sandi Brabb, assistant director of the neuroscience program and coordinator of Kids Judge!, “science evolves from being something the kids dread to something that is fun.”