Teaching Neuroscience One Potato Chip at a Time

Teaching Neuroscience One Potato Chip at a Time

By: Eric H. Chudler

The twenty preschool children (ages 3-5 years old) sat on the floor, looking up at me and waiting with anticipation for me to speak. As a university professor and research neuroscientist, I had lectured in full classrooms of undergraduate students and made scientific presentations in conference halls filled with hundreds of fellow scientists. But speaking to this group of preschool children was completely new territory for me. How could I possibly explain the intricacies of the brain to children who do not even know how to tie their own shoes?

My appearance at the preschool occurred about 27 years ago when I attended my daughter’s “Parent Show-and-Tell Day.” During these presentations, parents would speak to the children about their careers and share what they did at work. I spent a great deal of time thinking about how to help the children understand the structure and function of the brain, how neuroscientists study the brain, and the importance of keeping their brains in the best condition. A major problem I faced was in deciding how to speak with the children. Neuroscience is filled with jargon that is unfamiliar even to adults. Many words used in neuroscience (e.g., electroencephalography, cerebral cortex, amygdala, synapse) may as well be Greek and Latin. And, actually, these words are very close to their Greek and Latin roots!

Each presenter at Parent Show-and-Tell Day has only 10 minutes to talk, so it was obvious to me that I could not provide a detailed lecture about the historical foundations of modern neuroscience or the fundamentals of neuroanatomy, neurochemistry, and neurophysiology. Instead, I decided to focus on what I thought was most important to the children: how do they know what they know? Young children are natural explorers who gain knowledge by investigating their environment with their hands, eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. In other words, I would talk about the brain in relationship to the senses.

A discussion about the senses would fail if I tried to outline how external stimuli are collected by sensory organs and then transduced by specialized receptors into electrical signals that are sent to the brain for processing. Instead, I would let the children discover these things on their own.

With 20 pairs of beaming eyes on me, I stood in front of the room and opened a small bag of potato chips. Classic styled potato chips, not barbeque-flavor or ranch-flavor, if I remember correctly. I reached into the bag, removed one chip and asked the children, “What do I have in my hand?”

The children all answered, “It’s a chip!”

“Yes,” I responded, “But how do you know it’s a chip?”

There was a short period of silence until one child said, “Because I can see it.”

And with that, I popped the potato chip in my mouth and ate it. The children all laughed as I chewed on the chip.

Next, I pulled out a fresh chip from the bag, held it up, and asked, “How else would you know what this is?”

“You could eat it,” was the response of several children. And I did. I ate that chip and smiled with the resulting laughter.

We repeated the chip scenario (show, ask, eat) several more times until the children identified the other senses: hearing, touch, and smell. For smell, the students suggested I should sniff the chip; for hearing, they suggested I should crush the chip in my hand, and for touch they suggested that I could feel the chip with my fingers.

We went on to discuss what it is our brain does that helps us understand what we see, hear, taste, smell, and touch. Also, I mentioned that it is important that we eat good food, and get exercise and enough sleep so we can keep our brains in good shape to help us understand what happens around us and what we do.

Word about my presentation circulated throughout the preschool and I was asked to come back several times. Even when my daughter was in elementary school and middle school, I was asked to speak with students in different classrooms. With each grade level my daughter entered, I created new, more sophisticated activities to help the students understand the brain. Although I enjoyed these individual visits to classrooms, I thought there must be a better way to disseminate my materials more broadly.

The World Wide Web (WWW) offered the perfect tool for me to broadcast my ideas to people around the globe. In the mid-1990s, I taught myself hypertext markup language (HTML) and created my first website with information about the science of the brain, the people involved in neuroscientific research, and the diseases and disorders of the brain. I was able to secure a Science Education Partnership Award from the National Institutes of Health to fund my work and pay classroom teachers to review it and test the materials with their students. I titled my site Neuroscience for Kids because the materials were intended for young students and their teachers.

Neuroscience for Kids has grown and evolved over the past 20 years, with the pages describing new scientific discoveries and activities, games, and videos to illustrate neuroscientific concepts. Since 1998, subscribers (currently = 9,800) have received the Neuroscience for Kids Newsletter, a free, monthly, electronic newsletter with links to news articles about the brain, contests, neuroscience trivia, and book reviews. It is often difficult to find time to develop new materials for the website, but I get the occasional offer from people who would like to help by providing technical upgrades, authoring materials, or translating text into other languages. College students have mentioned that they use Neuroscience for Kids to supplement their university level coursework; several have suggested that I change the name of the site to “Neuroscience for All.”

A recent addition to Neuroscience for Kids is a series of 25-minute BrainWorks videos about sports-related concussions, brain-computer interfaces, exercise, sleep, and the basic principles of neuroscience. These videos feature children asking questions about the brain and finding the answers by experimenting and talking to experts.

When I faced those twenty preschool children, armed with a bag of potato chips, I had no idea I would be led down a new professional pathway. I am grateful to those children for motivating me to create Neuroscience for Kids and for inspiring me to share my interest in the brain with people around the world.    

Eric H. Chudler (Ph.D.) is a research associate professor in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Washington (Seattle, WA) and the executive director of the Center for Neurotechnology. He is a neuroscientist who also works with teachers to create materials to help people learn about the brain.

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