By Olivia Nieto
Being aware of how your mind works is insightful knowledge to hold, and NW Noggin, a non-profit organization, is helping share this information with public school students all around the Pacific Northwest. This neuroscience program recently visited Sisters Middle School to teach the class of 6th graders. The educators involved were all volunteer undergraduates from both the Oregon Health and Science University and Portland State University.
NW Noggin was founded in 2012 by Bill Griesar and Jeff Leake as a free classroom learning opportunity for middle schoolers at Sabin Elementary School. Griesar and Leake now travel with neuroscience students to schools and provide hands-on learning focused on brains, brain function, and the science behind it. They hope to encourage young people to be inquisitive and ask about how their brains receive messages in an open environment with volunteers they can relate to.
“I never expected it to grow as much as it did. It was really wild, and at a certain point, it got really crazy because so many people were asking us to visit them. Now we go once a week. But it’s still so rejuvenating to meet people and connect with communities,” shared Neuroscience Coordinator Bill Griesar.
As the program grew, so did the outreach. Griesar and Leake went from teaching a couple dozen students to over sixty thousand in just eleven years. This growth was an unexpected shock to the founders, who had never anticipated the traction of the program to take off quite so quickly.
Despite the surprise of the program’s popularity, they quickly adapted to the change by setting boundaries and schedules. The program also acknowledges that every school is a source of collaborative research, and they try to honor that by taking time to connect with the students.
An essential aspect of this program is the combination of science and art integration in the classroom. Incorporating STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) into their lesson plans has yielded a more positive and engaged learning environment. These hands-on projects include the pipe-cleaner neurons, neuron gelatin prints, and plaster brains they help students create.
When visiting Sisters Middle School, NW Noggin incorporated many of these crafts into their teachings, encouraging students to be intrigued about how their brains function. All of the 6th graders were given the chance to hold real brains and explore the purposes of its parts visually.
“We’ve found that going new places is one of the best ways to expand your understanding of what’s going on… also that the sharing of stories is really powerful, because you realize there are links between what you’re studying academically and people’s actual lived experiences, their own kinds of backgrounds, and what they contribute in these outreach sessions,” states Griesar.
“My favorite part was definitely holding the actual brains,” says one 6th-grade participant. “It just felt like a once-in-a-lifetime chance. It was indescribable.”
These visitations and experiences can only occur due to the receipt of grants from various organizations. The Roundhouse Foundation aided in making this a possibility within our local community and is helping fund NW Noggin’s return to Siletz later this year.
NW Noggin strives for an inclusive, equitable, and healthy working environment. With this goal in mind, they visit students and schools with “academic priority” to better offer them social and educational chances for the future.
“There’s a huge push to make neuroscience research, and make research in general, more reflective of our whole community, so our goal is really to go places that aren’t the usual places visited,” Griesar explains.
It’s only been a little over ten years since the two founders launched this program, and they already have several notable achievements including visiting the White House and the Phillips Collection; collaborating with the Portland Art Museum; being recognized for their innovative outreach model by the Obama White House; and connecting with students and communities all around the Pacific Northwest.
Learn more about NW Noggin and their mission at www.nwnoggin.org
Photos courtesy of Olivia Nieto
Olivia Nieto is a student at Sisters High School. She recently became a freelance writer and has been composing articles for the local Nugget Newspaper. Olivia enjoys playing saxophone in high school band and running cross country.