STEM-ing youth knowledge about the brain, its anatomy

Mount Holyoke professor Marta Sabariego and a group of neuroscience majors led a bilingual workshop for first graders at Edward Nelson White School in Holyoke to understand the intricacies of the brain and inspire them to pursue careers in science.

It’s not every day that you hear a classroom full of first-grade students cheer that they want to be scientists, but that’s exactly the sentiment that recently echoed through the hallways of Edward Nelson White School in Holyoke.

On April 5, Marta Sabariego, assistant professor of neuroscience and behavior at Mount Holyoke College, led a group of students – most of whom are majoring in Neuroscience and Behavior – in a bilingual workshop to understand the intricacies of the brain, its anatomy and adaptability. However, unlike her typical classroom at Mount Holyoke, the workshop was customized for Cristina Vázquez’s first–grade class at Edward Nelson White School.

“This workshop exposes these children to something so different, so outside of their usual days — it’s life-changing,” said Vázquez. “And they’re learning Spanish.”

As part of the elementary school’s dual language immersion model, first graders spend 70% of their daily learning in Spanish and 30% in English.

Sabariego said she specifically chose a school with a significant minority and predominantly Hispanic enrollment in an effort to ensure these children can explore scientific concepts in a context that resonates with their heritage.

“Conducting it in both Spanish and English, we're not only breaking language barriers but also reinforcing the importance of cultural identity in science,” she said. “Our ultimate goal is to cultivate a space where science is inclusive and engaging for everyone, empowering children from diverse backgrounds to see themselves as potential contributors to the scientific community. …This workshop sets out to demystify the brain through interactive and enjoyable activities.”

Brain basics

As part of the workshop, first graders were split into four groups to explore four separate stations of brain-related activities led by two Mount Holyoke students, one who spoke in English and one who spoke in Spanish. After completing the objective at each station, students switch to a new station. At the first station, first graders had the opportunity to observe real rat and sheep brains, as well as a model of a human brain. Just like real scientists, first graders were also able to touch the brains using gloves. With images of a rat, sheep and humans, first graders were able to match each brain with the corresponding creature.

“It’s really cool,” said first-grade student Ani. “The rat’s brain was squishy and wet.”

Through their observations, the first graders explored the differences and similarities between the brains and delved into how the varying shapes relate to their functions.

At another station, first graders explored neural plasticity with a bean bag tossing activity. At first, children were given bean bags to throw at a target to demonstrate their natural aim and motor coordination, and then an element of distortion was introduced with goggles that shift their vision. Through repeated attempts with the goggles on, children can see that their brain will recalibrate their motor coordination to compensate for the visual shift, says Sabariego.

“I learned that the right part of the brain controls the left hand and the left side of the brain controls the right hand,” said first grader Alejandra.

The third station allowed children a close-up look at slices of rat brain under microscopes, which revealed intricate details of neural tissue. Similar to the other stations, there was also a matching game with a rat brain atlas where students could identify what they were looking at and further discuss their observations. At the final station, children selected and crafted a specific neuron or glia type. The activity was intended to allow them to visualize and interact with the cellular components of the nervous system.

How did this come to fruition?

Sabariego, a native of Spain, navigated the hurdles that came with a lack of early science exposure as a first-generation college student, including battling the cultural and language barriers upon immigrating to the U.S. Those barriers she experienced deeply inspired her to develop this workshop.

“The pivotal role of women mentors who shared similar experiences to mine underscored the transformative power of representation and mentorship in science for me. Joining Mount Holyoke College, I saw that I was in the perfect spot to give back, where my background, my accent, and my story could actually help others feel like they belong,” she said. 

“This workshop isn't just an educational event; it's a gateway for young minds to the expanding world of neuroscience, aiming to diversify a field in dire need of varied perspectives. By making neuroscience approachable and engaging, we hope to spark a lifelong curiosity and sense of belonging among these children, encouraging them to envision themselves as future pillars in science.”

Beyond the understanding of the brain, one of Sabariego’s biggest goals was fostering inclusivity by promoting engagement among children from different cultural backgrounds. For Mount Holyoke students, the workshop serves as a practical platform to apply the neuroscience concepts they’ve learned in an “accessible, real-world” context, says Sabariego. “Witnessing their direct impact on the community, these aspiring scientists, educators, and communicators are seeing the transformative power of inclusive science education firsthand,” she said. “This workshop is designed to ignite a spark of curiosity and a sense of belonging, paving the way for these children, and MHC students, to be the next leaders in neuroscience.”

When Gabriella Cordero ’26, who is majoring in Neuroscience and Behavior, first learned about Sabariego’s lab, she knew she had to be a part of it. Following the workshop, students approached her and provided feedback, such as, “I am smart like a scientist,” and “I can be a scientist.”

A native of Miami, Cordero says she’s very passionate about the idea of teaching students who are primarily Hispanic about the brain, thus allowing them to see that they have the capability to become scientists. Throughout Cordero’s academic career, she attended schools that primarily contained Hispanic students like herself. “If I would have experienced a workshop like this, it would have inspired me in so many ways,” she said. “I hope programs and workshops like these continue so children from diverse backgrounds feel the possibility that they have to become the future scientists, doctors and researchers of our world.”


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