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Washington State University
CAS Connect April 2016

Taking art and brains to D.C.

From The Columbian
A WSU-affiliated neuroscience outreach group that brings art and human brains into K-12 classrooms is taking its show to the nation’s capital later this month.

Neuroscientists, artists, and students from WSU Vancouver are part of the Neuroscience Outreach Group: Growing in Networks (NOGGIN) team that will lead several discussions about brains, brain research, and brain-themed artwork April 25 to 30 at several Washington, D.C., venues—including the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives.

Bill Griesar
Bill Griesar

“We take brains and art into classrooms and see people’s eyes light up,” said Bill Griesar, instructor of psychology and neuroscience and co-founder of NW NOGGIN. “We’d be happy to bring brains to Congress,” he said.

In all, 28 people, including faculty and students from WSU Vancouver and two universities in Oregon, will participate in the brain-related presentations and discussions.

The WSU Vancouver contingent includes Griesar and artist Jeff Leake, coordinator of neuroscience outreach and co-instructor with Giesar for the course “Art and the Brain.” They will be joined by professor of biological sciences Christine Portfors, a colleague in integrative physiology and neuroscience, Chancellor Mel Netzhammer, eight undergraduate and three graduate students, a post-doctoral student, and an alumnus. The three universities are providing funds for the trip.

Bringing STEAM to Congress, the White House, and schools

At the House of Representatives, the group will present a “Brains + Art” briefing to the Neuroscience caucus and the Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics—or STEAM—caucus.

DC Noggin
Detail from an image by Jeff Leake and Alex Voigt (2016)

In a presentation to the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee in the U.S. Senate, NW NOGGIN members will talk about their success in developing K-12 students’ enthusiasm about brain science. The group also will explain how their community outreach events in pubs, theaters and other venues helps adults not only become enthusiastic about brain science but also enables them to see the value in federal funding of brain research.

At the White House, some members of the group will present at the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

An “arts-integrated approach” will be part of all of the meetings, Griesar said. “We’ll get an opportunity to talk about the need for federal dollars to fund neuroscience. We’ll also talk about how our students have been involved in these arts-integrated outreach activities. They are very interested in learning how these arts-integrated research programs work.”

When the NW NOGGIN group visits two low-income elementary schools in D.C., students will have the opportunity to observe human brains close up. After learning about how the brain’s neurons work, students will build their own replica neurons from pipe cleaners. Then they will examine brain-inspired artwork and will make Petri dish art prints.

Creating a ‘brain makerspace’

Later in the week, the students’ artwork will be displayed at the Phillips Collection, a D.C.-area museum of modern art, in a special NW NOGGIN presentation called “Brains, Beauty, and Brews Neuroscience Night.” The already-sold-out event will highlight the brain science underlying human perception of landscapes.

Neuroscience Night will include the exhibit “Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks” from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection. It features 39 masterpieces spanning five centuries and explores the evolution of European and American landscape art.

Neuroscience Night asks the question: How does your brain react when you look at artwork? In a “brain makerspace,” participants can hold and examine human brains, try brain challenges in conjunction with the art exhibit, and create a neural-network art piece.

“We’ll be talking about the neurophysiology of visual perception: How you see with your brain. What parts of the brain are involved in perceiving colors and depth and contrast and spatial relations. Your emotional response to the work. The memories it calls up,” Griesar said.

The “brews” part of the event will include donated Northwest beer and wine. “Since we’re going to be highlighting Northwest neuroscience and art, we thought we’d also approach Northwest beer and winemakers,” Griesar said.

The human brains for all events will be provided by the American Brain Coalition, a nonprofit organization comprised of leading professional neurological, psychological, and psychiatric associations, and patient groups. They will bring several human brains with various characteristics, including a brain with Alzheimer’s disease.

“The grad students are getting terrific opportunities to explain their work to the general public. To make some pretty extraordinary work more accessible. To let people know what they’re doing,” Griesar said.

Through its outreach efforts, NW NOGGIN has reached about 9,000 K-12 students and about 1,000 community members. But with the exposure to lawmakers and other influential leaders in Washington, D.C., that number of brain enthusiasts will continue to grow.

“The brain is amazing. It grabs people’s attention,” Griesar said. “You want to know how your brain works. You want a user’s manual.”