MIDDLEBURY — Upon entering the Middlebury Union High School basement classroom after the final tones signaling the end of the school day, high school students, Middlebury College undergrads and Middlebury resident Lisa Bernardin are taking their pulses. These students are about to become stress and psychology myth-busters who launch into a discussion on homeostasis, graying hair and acne.
The neurological banter filling the room is inquisitive, introspective and impressive. Their topic: The human brain.
“No matter what you do with your life, this stuff is so relevant,” said Kevin Grafmiller, one of four Middlebury College students there. “You can apply (neuroscience) to whatever job you have. Whatever these students end up doing, it will matter.”
This group of curious thinkers forms the Vermont Brain Bee Club, led by Bernardin and a small but mightily thoughtful team of college students. Some of the regular attendees at the Monday afternoon club meetings are MUHS students Tyler Hogan, Sonia Howlett, Andrew Burkins, Stephen Peters-Collaer and Jonah Lefkoe.
In addition to satisfying their interest in how the brain works, they are preparing for the third annual Vermont Brain Bee (VBB). The brain science competition for high school students will be held Feb. 11 at the University of Vermont and is linked to a national neuroscience competition that takes place each March — in which the winners of each regional brain bee compete. The MUHS club members are actively advancing their neuroscience knowledge in preparation for both competitions.
“We have really smart kids in this state and we should prove it,” said Bernardin, program coordinator for the VBB.
For Bernardin, the college students and MUHS students who ponder over slides of the region of the brain called the hippocampus, diagrams of neurons and discussions on melatonin levels, the Brain Bee is a chance to question and connect. Given the resources available in the region, they can connect in incredible ways: Students who participate in the VBB have the chance to hear lectures by graduate students and neuroscientists and at UVM they get to explore the facilities and even real brains — up close and personally.
“We want to capture the curiosities of high school kids,” said Bernardin. “One day they could be the ones discovering remedies to disorders, working in labs, as brain surgeons, as professors.”
Bernardin’s initial interest in forming the club arose not because she was a neuroscientist, or researcher, but because she experienced a traumatic brain injury when she was 30.
“It happened in 1985,” she said. “I was in a car accident. I always was into challenging myself with races and events — I always went after trying to just get better, be better and this did not go away after the accident.
“I didn’t get into studying the brain and neuroscience until two years ago,” Bernardin continued. “I get this quarterly magazine called ‘The Challenge’ that is published by the Brain Injury Association of America and I saw an article on the winner of the International Brain Bee.”
Bernardin found out that before involvement with the national bee, competitors must first enlist in a regional bee, but there were no regional contests in Vermont Maine, or New Hampshire. Eager to begin one, she contacted coordinators in Massachusetts and discovered that as long as three schools were involved and one neuroscientist was present to judge, Vermont would have a start — and a shot at the nationals later.
STARTING THE CLUB
Enter the Vermont Brain Bee Club, which set out to draw out high schoolers’ desires to study the brain, allow students to collaborate with peers and mentors and, generally, produce meritorious learning outcomes — with or without a trophy.
“I am an educator and a speech language pathologist, I’ve been a substitute teacher, so I’m aware of all styles of learning,” said Bernardin. “But I wanted to give interested MUHS students a better feel for the types of questions posed at the Vermont Brain Bee, so I decided to try a club right here in Middlebury. But all I had to start with (in forming the club), besides doing the leg work as the coordinator of the last two Vermont Brain Bees, was the great little book that’s used in all the regional brain bees: ‘Brain Facts.’ I was no expert on neuroscience, at all.”
Bernardin’s ambitious intentions captured the interest of Middlebury College senior Nina Wright, who Bernardin had met at a lecture by Middlebury psychology professor and neuroscientist Mark Stefani.
“I ran into Nina … and she said, ‘Oh, well, do you need some help?’’ Bernardin recalled. “She said that she had friends who, like her, were majoring in neuroscience and would be interested in working with this club.”
Wright and a handful of other Middlebury College students — Divya Dethier, Amy Johnson and Grafmiller — teamed up with Bernardin to set up the structure of the MUHS club meetings, which include teasers, a PowerPoint on a given topic (from brain anatomy to stress to movement), an activity and follow-up “Jeopardy”-style competition.
Teaser questions range from: “What do you think the record is for the longest time without sleep?” to “The octopus has about 300 million neurons (brain cells). How many do you think the human brain has?” (Answers: In 1965 Randy Gardner did not sleep for 11 days (265 hours), and the human brain ahs 100 billion neurons — more than three times as many as an octopus.)
The vocabulary around these topics is often unfamiliar to high school students.
“Since I started getting into this, I have become aware that neuroscience is not a topic that is really covered in high schools,” said Bernardin. “They do cover the brain in Health … but only for a short time.”
“That’s why I was interested in the club,” said Lefkoe, an MUHS sophomore. “I had had a science teacher in 6th grade let us do a project on anything that interested us and since I didn’t know much about brain science at that point, it was what I chose. The Brain Bee Club allows me to keep learning.”
With a paucity of neuroscience classes, this club has been an exceptional avenue for exploration — students have the chance to find out not just what the longest time a human went without sleep was, but how neuroscience is applicable, relevant, important and exciting in the mercurial life of a teenager.
Wright laughingly recalls her favorite moments at the club: “I just remember, the first time that all the students felt comfortable enough to start teasing me. They’d say, ‘Nina, that question is totally a 100-level question, not 500!’”
All club leaders expressed similar sentiments: The best part of teaching neuroscience is hearing the students’ questions and recognizing their progress.
“A few weeks ago, we were talking and went off on a tangent about different neuroscience-related studies and the students just seemed so genuinely curious,” said Dethier. “‘Wait, how does this work? How does that work?’ They are really thinking and it shows.”
Thinking about sleep, stress and hormones is something teens find applicable. Learning how to manage stress — through meditation or music — definitely holds sway in curbing harmful coping behavior. Yet the knowledge students might take away goes even farther. As Johnson noted, the material covered in the club might also reveal “why drinking excessively during adolescence can be so harmful to brain development.”
For those intrigued by neurotransmitters, fascinated with memory, stress or language acquisition, the Brain Bee Club is supporting a Brain Science Discovery Day event on Saturday, Dec. 3, from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. in McCardell Bicentennial Hall (lunch provided). Registration is free but is limited to 60 students and must be done by this Friday, Nov. 26. Register online at www.vermontbrainbee.com .
The morning will include a talk by last year’s winner of the Vermont Regional Brain Bee, Greg Meyers. Then, through a colorful array of activities, attendees will explore four main topics: anatomy of the brain, electroencephalogram tests (EEGs), brain injury and protection and movement.
For loyal Brain Bee devotees and newcomers, this event is sure to captivate and relate; it is the perfect chance to step inside the mind and to hear about what top researchers know, want to know and — especially — want everyone else to know about how humans think.
For students who register for February’s Brain Bee, there will be a warm-up activity in December — “Brain Bee Boot Camp.” It will be held Saturday, Dec. 17, from 9 a.m.-noon at the UVM Medical Education Building. Students who want to attend must register for the VBB by Dec. 10. Sign up for the boot camp by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
At Monday’s MUHS Brain Bee Club session on stress, students worked with meditation as a healthy way to combat stress’ negative causations. At the end of the session they re-took their pulses.
The group average had dropped from 17 to 14 beats over a quarter minute.
“Well, that looks like progress!” Grafmiller exclaimed.