Faculty teach neuroscience to high school students in innovative program

Seeing a zebrafish’s ears glow is fascinating, but being the person who actually makes the ears glow ups the “cool factor” of the experience exponentially. Now, five high school students can proudly add this skill to their résumés after taking part in The Cleveland Neuroscientists and Innovators Program (CNIP), a brand-new two-week neuroscience program at Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals Case Medical Center.

The students—from Shaker Heights High School, University School and John Hay Campus as well as Hart High School in California—are finishing up the program, in which they study hearing in zebrafish. The multidisciplinary approach includes labs and lectures led by faculty members and researchers across different departments from the Case Western Reserve, the School of Medicine, The Cleveland Museum of Natural History, as well as a teacher from John Hay and input from The Center for Science and Mathematics Education at CWRU.

“It’s basically a boot camp introduction to the scientific world,” said Brian McDermott, assistant professor in the Department of Otolaryngology, who developed the program to get students interested in science, research, and higher education—and to connect students from different neighborhoods.

During the two-week program, which runs daily from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., students attend lectures led by professors and spend hands-on time working with the fish. The instruction teaches them how to make transgenic zebrafish that have cells in their ears that glow. The bestowed glowing properties allow the students to then conduct scientific experiments to better understand hearing (fish and humans share the same genes that, if damaged, cause deafness).

For homework, the students get social, sharing their daily written reports in a Facebook group and uploading video blogs.

Manuel Mendoza—the high school teacher McDermott and the principal of the Cleveland School of Science and Medicine at John Hay recruited to attend the program—moderates the online reports and is present in the classroom each day, helping break down academia speak into high-school-friendly terms.

“The kids are really processing the information well, and they’re getting to know what a college lecture is really like,” Mendoza said. “I can really, truly say they’re excited about learning.”

But it’s not only the students who are learning throughout the program. Mendoza is gaining his fair share of new knowledge and teaching techniques, and he plans to take the lessons back to John Hay to share with all his students.

Additionally, McDermott said: “It’s a discovery process for all of us. We’re not professional educators of high school students, so we’re learning as well and becoming more effective communicators.”