Sandia LabNews

Students explore brain science in after-school STEM club

Brain Hackers

Middle school student Kasey Forsythe

A FAMILY INTEREST IN STEM – Nearly 50 Roosevelt Middle School students stay after school each week to participate in Brain Hackers. Among them is Chris Forsythe’s daughter, Kasey Forsythe. Kasey (pictured in the top image), a seventh-grader, has participated in Brain Hackers for three years and is also active in her dad’s robotics club. Chris says that the membership of Brain Hackers consistently includes 50 percent girls, which is unusual for a STEM program. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

Neuroscientist Chris Forsythe has found a unique way to interest teenagers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and keep them engaged.

Three years ago, Chris founded the popular Brain Hackers after-school neuroscience program at Roosevelt Middle School in Tijeras, and the students keep coming back for more. This year, Chris estimates that nearly 15 percent of the school’s students are staying after school to learn about neurotechnology and applied brain and behavior science.

The goal of Brain Hackers, Chris says, is to interest students in STEM at a critical time in their development, and to help them maintain that interest. After running an award-winning robotics club for several years, Chris noticed a pattern: Many of the students in the club were excited about STEM in elementary school, but by the time they entered middle school, that interest had waned, particularly in the girls.

A number of factors are at play, Chris says, including the students’ maturity and their changing interests during a time of self-discovery.

“That prompted me to think of how I could start a program that would hold onto these kids that we’re losing and keep them engaged in middle and high school. That is the impetus of Brain Hackers. One of the key aspects of the program is that every activity we do is geared around how I can take the science and make it directly relevant to everyday life,” Chris explains.

An engaging syllabus

Chris designs weekly activities and brief lectures around topics that naturally pique teenagers’ interest, including music and the brain, the differences between girls’ and boys’ brains, and how the brain constructs and responds to stories.

He says that, even without making a special effort to recruit girls for Brain Hackers, the club’s membership consistently comprises approximately 50 percent girls, which is unusual for STEM programs.

“I think a lot of what makes it work is taking the things they are naturally going to be doing, whether it’s playing with online applications for creating music, or making YouTube movies, and then giving them the background of how brain and cognitive processes work and how to apply that knowledge,” Chris says.

Last school year, analyzing music’s effect on the brain was particularly popular with the students. They monitored their brain activity by wearing electroencephalograms while playing musical instruments. The output was projected onto a screen for the group to see and analyze.

“One of the key aspects I wanted to introduce about the brain is pattern recognition, and how the brain is constantly making predictions and monitoring the world to see if those predictions are met or violated. I described how the brain and its circuits operate, and I did it in the context of music,” Chris says.

This year the program’s syllabus includes a focus on artificial intelligence and biomemetics, a topic numerous students requested. First he will teach the students about brain circuitry, and then the group will use Lego Mindstorm robots to model how the brain accomplishes certain functions.

“This will be the first time I’ve merged the Brain Hackers activities with the robotics activities, but there seems to be a natural overlap between the two,” Chris says.

Chris is also developing a program for fourth- and fifth-grade students to teach them about basic brain science and give them practical advice for doing well in school and in sports and other interests. While Chris hopes the program will be fun and engaging, it will also address serious topics such as stress, mental health, peer pressure, and concussions.

“My goal is to provide them with an age-appropriate appreciation of the underlying physical mechanisms as a basis for understanding what is happening, and, hopefully, making better decisions,” he says.

A unique path to STEM

Chris works in Human Factors, where his research in cognitive psychology and applied brain science benefits departments across the Labs. “The common thread is how to use technology to better understand or improve brain performance, enabling people to perform better, accelerating training, and even figuring out who’s the best for certain jobs. Everything I’ve done while at Sandia has been about how to improve human performance in one way or another.”

Chris didn’t always have an interest in science, though. He grew up in a farming community in rural Tennessee where it was common for teenagers to drop out of high school and go to work. “When I was 14, I was out of school working full time doing construction. It was almost a coincidence that I decided to try college. I started out at a community college, and I did really well. I continued on and eventually got a PhD. I’ve been at Sandia for 23 years, and I had kind of a weird path to get to where I am today.”

He says he benefitted from being mentored in his youth, and he hopes to give that experience to today’s students. “I had this same type of experience,” he says, gesturing around the room at the students who have gathered to learn from him, “but it was working construction with older journeymen, carpenters, and electricians who mentored me as a teenager in the same way that I’m working with these kids.”

Chris, who is about to retire, plans to expand the program to community centers, museums, and other schools this school year. He welcomes those interested in mentoring to join him. A background in brain or behavioral science is helpful but not required.

Chris says that every week when the club meets he reminds himself that instead of playing video games or watching movies on YouTube, nearly 50 students choose to spend their time learning about neuroscience with him.

“I know that no matter what they choose to pursue in college and later in life, they will benefit from having a practical understanding of their brain and how it affects their experiences in life,” he says.