OHSU

KIDS JUDGE! Event Improves Scientists' Presentation Skills

10/10/03   Portland, Ore.

Annual OHSU event also helps fourth-graders learn that science can be fun.

When talking to the general public about their research, scientists often employ a simple strategy that has become a standard for reaching the widest audience possible: Speak at a fourth-grade level.

So what better way for scientists to hone their public speaking skills than to show off their research projects to a bunch of actual fourth-graders. They'll get their chance Thursday, Oct. 16, at the annual Oregon Kids Judge! Neuroscience Fair at Oregon Health & Science University. The event is from 9:45 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. in the OHSU Auditorium/Old Library building on the Marquam Hill Campus.

About 100 fourth-graders from Ball and Sitton elementary schools in north Portland will judge 12 science exhibits developed by university students and members of the faculty and staff from the departments of Behavioral Neuroscience, Physiology and Pharmacology, and Molecular and Medical Genetics, and the Integrative Biomedical Sciences and Neuroscience graduate programs in OHSU's School of Medicine.

The exhibits are judged on whether the students understood what the presenters were trying to tell them; whether the presenters were friendly; whether the exhibit was fun; and whether the students want to learn more about the topic. The students also can rate their favorite part of each exhibit and what they learned from it, and they can ask the presenters written follow-up questions.

Cheryl Reed, Ph.D., research associate in behavioral neuroscience and one of the event's organizers, says not only do the researchers get practice speaking before a general audience, the children also learn that science isn't so scary.

"The purpose of Oregon Kids Judge! is to get kids excited about science, to show them that being a scientist is fun, as well as help scientists explore their area of research interest in a unique way," she said. "It also aids in the development of communication skills of the scientists so they can explain their science at a fourth-grade level. Plus, Oregon Kids Judge! helps promote imaginative thinking for all volunteers."

National organizer, Deborah Colbern, Ph.D., describes the atmosphere at Oregon Kids Judge! as "delightfully chaotic."

"There are 100 kids armed with clipboards and "Judge" ribbons pinned to their chests, and 40 presenters going through a variety of contortions in order to make themselves understood," said Colbern, Venice, Calif.-based director of the National Kids Judge! Partnership, a program funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse to enhance neuroscience education nationwide by improving communication between scientists and their communities.

"Add another 35 OHSU, Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center and high school volunteers, teachers, principals, chaperones, visiting dignitaries, balloons, modeling dough, brain headbands, child-sized laboratory equipment, musical instruments, animal noses, brains, and more brains, and you have a carnival of brain science."

Among the exhibits to be judged are: "Neuronic Symphony" - children use musical instruments to demonstrate how nerve cells act in concert to perform simple, automatic behaviors; "Tip Your Ticker" - children tip their friends upside down to show how the heart responds to excess blood moving to the head; "Pick Your Nose" - children pick from a bag containing nose masks of mice, pigs, dolphins, elephants, monkeys and other nostril species and try to find the brain that matches the noses on their faces; "Synaptic Land" - a cross between "Pinball" and "Hungry, Hungry Hippos" in which children learn how nerve cells talk and how drugs or medicines act on the brain; "What is Pizza?" - children learn how the brain processes a variety of complicated signals to determine our perception of an object; and "Using Your Marbles" - children learn what it's like to be a lab mouse by pressing a lever on a child-sized version of an apparatus that scientists commonly use to study how the brain learns and remembers.

Colbern said presenters at the Oregon Kids Judge! Fair have set the standard for innovation and excellence at other colleges and universities involved in the Kids Judge! Partnership.

"From their involvement in the Kid Judge! program, they have learned that relatively sophisticated concepts can be explained in simple terms if one is creative and willing to make the effort," she said.

Four first-place winners will be chosen and each winning group will receive certificates signed by the Ball and Sitton school children, plus a check for $300. Participating science groups already have pledged to donate their prize money to the schools to help support their science education programs - a total of $600 for each elementary school.

But even the distribution of the prize money doesn't diminish the competitiveness among the scientists.

"Oh, the scientists love the competition. They want to be the winners of the competition. So they are willing to work hard and design a display that will be the best of the best," Reed said. "Last year, there was quite a bit of pre-fair talk about how cool their booths were. It was a lot of fun."

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