Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Cultivating brains for science

By Carol Clark

When Jordan Rose began carrying buckets of brains to public school classrooms in metro Atlanta, he knew he had found his calling.

“I was having a great time, doing something that I was passionate about,” he recalls of introducing middle and high school students to a retinue of craniums, including those of rats, a manatee, rhesus macaques and a human.

It was 2000 and Rose had just graduated from Emory with a degree in neuroscience and behavioral biology. In an interlude before medical school, he joined Emory’s Center for Science Education (CSE) as outreach coordinator of the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, a consortium of eight Atlanta universities. His job was to provide hands-on science to public school students in grades K-12, and to motivate them to pursue science careers.

Middle school kids who gloved up to touch a human brain for the first time were especially thrilled, Rose says. “They would put a finger into a ventricle and start firing off comments and questions: ‘I didn’t know the brain was hollow. What do all these wrinkles mean? Is it true you only use 10 percent of your brain?’”

After learning about the parts of the brain and their functions, students were told to draw an imaginary animal. Then they were asked to shape the animal’s brain in clay, based on the animal’s behaviors and interactions with its environment. “One kid said his animal had ESP,” Rose recalls. “He created a new part of the brain that stuck up from the middle.”

Around this time, Rose received acceptance letters from two medical schools. He turned them down. That fateful decision led him to his current role as assistant director of the CSE.

“I thought about what my job would be like as a physician, spending time in hospitals, and I realized that wasn’t for me,” Rose says. He leans back in his chair in his CSE office, located in an older home on the edge of campus. “I saw a niche that I could fill, where I could apply my passion for teaching, and for science.”

A loud snore comes from somewhere beneath his desk. Humphrey – the pug dog that accompanies Rose to work – groans, rolls over, and resumes snoring. Rose breaks into a wide grin: Smiling is clearly his natural state.

Soon after the Long Island native enrolled at Emory he joined a juggling troop: Emory’s Amazing Throwing-Up Society. The now defunct EAT-US (spelled in Greek letters and pronounced ehy-HA-toos) often performed to raise money for charity.
Rose, right, juggling for charity as an undergraduate, with a fellow member of Emory's Amazing Throwing-Up Society.

“I learned to juggle four balls, rings, clubs and flaming torches,” Rose says, recalling that he once set his pants on fire.

In biology lab he met his future wife, fellow student Laura Smith. “We fell in love over a fetal pig,” Rose says. “It might have been the intoxicating aroma of formaldehyde.” (Laura Rose now works for the CDC and the couple has a five-month-old son, Ryan.)

Pat Marsteller, director of the CSE and Rose’s senior advisor, recruited him to join the center, which is dedicated to transforming science education on the Emory campus and beyond. The idea is for students of all ages to actually investigate questions, by collecting information in a scientific manner and analyzing it themselves.

Rose currently heads up the CSE program called PRISM (Problems and Research to Integrate Science and Mathematics). Emory graduate students work with area K-12 teachers to develop problem-based learning for science classes. The result is lesson plans with gripping names, like “Dial M for Molecule,” “Adding Fuel to the Fire,” “Fatal Attraction,” “Sealed with a Kiss” and “Got Gas?”
Murder or a grisly accident? Psychology grad student Sabrina Sidaras (on floor) helps high school students learn to think like scientists, as part of the PRISM program.

“We want graduate students to influence a new generation of students, by gaining more confidence and skills to explain their research to non-scientists,” Rose says. “And we want Atlanta school kids to understand how science works.”

PRISM is also a boon to Atlanta teachers, giving them the time and resources to do their jobs better. “Teachers often aren’t treated like professionals,” Rose says. “They get no love, and that’s what we try to give them.”

While working, Rose pursued a master’s at the Rollins School of Public Health, graduating in 2006. For his thesis, he evaluated the science literacy of Emory freshmen. The students fared better than U.S. adults overall, but he found that they needed improvement in understanding how scientists use theories, laws and hypotheses. Science faculty told Rose that they want students to learn to interpret evidence in ways that helps them make better choices in life, a goal that defines the CSE’s mission.

“We don’t expect everyone to become a scientist,” Rose says, “but we think it’s important for future teachers, lawyers – and everyone who votes – to know how to interpret science.”

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