Brain Day with Girl Scouts

Each year we celebrate International Brain Day by hosting Girl Scouts from around New York for a day of hands-on neuroscience experiments!


Our annual “Brain Day”, in collaboration with the Nassau County Girl Scouts, was transformed into a special Science Cafe given by our Chair of Outreach, Alexa Pagliaro (seen here). It featured an interactive workshop to explore the 5 senses- focusing on how the brain interprets and processes information coming from its environment. For each of the primary senses, simple DIY experiments were used to illustrate the principles of sensory neuroscience. For example, for vision, students learn how to find their blind spot and engage in an experiment with after-image optical illusions. For taste, students trick their tongue with miraculin berries and perform a PTC taste test and learn how the genetic background of the experiment affects their taste outcomes.


On Saturday March 16, WiSE Outreach held our 3rd Annual Brain Day event for the Girl Scouts of Nassau County in celebration of Brain Awareness Week.  The Dana Foundation declared March 10-24 Brain Awareness Week to bring public attention to the progress and importance of brain research. Girl Scouts were invited to come to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to learn from our WiSE neuroscientists about the brain.

After an introduction to neuroscience, the girls were split into groups to rotate through 5 fun neuroscience activities.  For three stations, we utilized Backyard Brains equipment to demonstrate the electrical signals sent by neurons that allow for muscle contraction and movement.  The girl’s were fascinated by their ability to control a claw with their own muscle contractions; better yet they could control each other at the mind-control station!  They even became DJs at a station that converts muscle contraction into sound.

We had the girls get crafty to learn about the structure of a neuron. They learned about dendrites, the axon, and the myelin sheath as they shaped pipe-cleaners and incorporated “protective” beads. The day wouldn’t have been complete without a station with REAL BRAINS! The girls were excited to touch and hold preserved cow, sheep, rat and mouse brains, as they observed the similarities across the species. We were able to send the girls home with some brain activity books and goodie-bags provided by the Dana Foundation.  There were even some books for their parents at home. Once again, WiSE Brain Day was a success thanks to our WiSE volunteers, the Dana Foundation, and the Girl Scouts of Nassau County.


In celebration of Brain Awareness Week, on May 5, 2018,  a group of Girl Scouts visited the lab to participate in WiSE Brain Day: Backyard Brains.  The day started with an introduction to neuroscience and the basics of the nervous system, with an emphasis on the neuromuscular junction. The girls were then split into groups to rotate through five stations that focused on a different concept of neuroscience.  At one station, the girls got the chance to examine and hold preserved sheep, rat, and mice brains as they learned about the anatomy and functions of different areas of the brain. The other stations utilized Backyard Brains equipment to demonstrate some of the concepts they learned about.  The girls placed electrodes on their muscles to examine the electrical signals that take place at rest and during contractions on endomyograms (EMG). At another station, they attached electrodes to their muscles and used their contractions to control a robotic claw.  At the “mind control” station, everyone’s favorite, electrodes detecting the electrical activity of contraction on one person were used to control another person’s movement.  The girls were sent home with reading material and workbooks from the Dana Foundation.


On Saturday April 29, 2017, WiSE hosted a Brain Day event for Girl Scouts, an opportunity to spend a morning learning about neuroscience through interactive experiments led by CSHL faculty members Steve Shea and Jessica Tollkhun. The 24 girls who attended, ranging in age from 11 to 14, had diverse reasons for coming; while some already expressed a strong interest in science (one told us she wants to be a neuroscientist or an engineer), others were motivated by a love of making things (including messes). Many of the girls were currently taking Earth Science in school, so Brain Day was an exciting way to fit a biology lesson into their studies.

After an introductory neuroscience lesson in which Steve Shea explained how neurons communicate, the girls split into groups to see this signaling in action using Backyards Brains kits (affordable, Arduino-controlled electrophysiology kits). At one of the stations, after a brief primer on cockroach leg anatomy, the girls measured changes in the frequency of neuronal spikes in cockroach legs in response to various stimuli – this taught them about how neurons use rate coding to transmit information. At another station, they used electric signals from music to cause cockroach legs to dance.

While the girls definitely enjoyed the insect lab, the human experiments were the highlights of the day for many. At one station, the girls converted electromyography (EMG) signals coming from their own muscles into sound and lights. They then used EMG signals to control a robotic claw and Jessica Tollkhun explained how similar technology is being used to allow amputees and people with paralysis to control prosthetic limbs. At another station, they transmitted electrical information from the muscles of one girl to the nerve of another, allowing them to control that girl’s finger movements.

In between experiments, the girls got the chance to talk with and ask questions of WiSE group. Conversations overheard included research technician Alex Ambrico discussing career pathways with Katrina, who’s interested in becoming a nurse, and Steve Shea discussing neuroanatomy with Bronwen, whose experiences with friends battling brain cancer have motivated her to become a neurologist.

With twelve troops from Nassau County and one from Queens represented, the event was not only an opportunity to learn, but also a chance to make new friends. And smiles could be found all around – especially at the station where girls were using their facial movements to control machines!

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