Portsmouth students use brainpower in 'Skype a Scientist'

Second-graders grill MIT’s Jeremy Petravicz

EastBayRI.com ·

PORTSMOUTH — In their interview of a brain scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, second-graders at Hathaway School demonstrated that their gray matter was working just fine.

During a “Skype a Scientist” session held from the school’s Makerspace room last week, Karen Moore’s students peppered Jeremy Petravicz, a research scientist at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning & Memory, with dozens of questions about the inner workings of our most vital organ.

Does eating affect your brain? It sure does, said Mr. Petravicz, whose image appeared on a monitor above the students during the live session. “Anything that’s not good for your body is not good for your brain,” he said.

How do you keep your brain safe and healthy? “If you’re outside on your bike or skateboard, wear your helmet,” the scientist said, adding that “exercising” your brain by reading or taking something apart and putting it back together helps keep it sharp.

Even video games are good for the brain, he said, which drew loud cheers from his young audience. 

“But it has to be in moderation, though. I would say for no more than an hour,” he added.

2,000 scientists available

Skype-a-Scientist is a program initiated at the University of Connecticut that makes more than 2,000 scientists available for open discussions with classrooms via video chats. 

Last Wednesday’s session was the first the district has ever arranged, said Erin Escher, the district’s K-8 instructional science coach. Another Skype session has been arranged for a scientist from the United Kingdom, he said.

Ms. Moore said her students did all their own research in coming up with questions which they prepared in advance for Mr. Petravicz, and there was no shortage of enthusiasm for the project.

Greyson Helie, for example, had a ton of questions about the different parts of the brain and their functions. Specifically, she asked about the part of the brain that makes someone laugh.

Mr. Petravicz responded that the frontal lobe — in the front of your brain — tells you when something is funny, but that other parts help you to laugh.

Greyson had a series of follow-up questions, but she had to yield to the other students.

“She’s a very curious student,” Ms. Moore said of Greyson.

May Waluk asked Mr. Petravicz if he had ever seen the Pixar movie “Inside Out,” about a young girl and the five personified emotions that live inside her brain.

“I love that movie,” he said. “It’s actually pretty accurate.”

Nicholas Tong wanted to know how many brain cells there were. “The last time I checked, there were about a billion,” the scientist replied.

Whoa! exclaimed the students.

Stella Aguiar asked Mr. Petravicz if he liked being a brain scientist.

“Yes, I do,” he said. “Every day I’m basically learning something new. You get to make new discoveries and share those with your colleagues.”

Keegan Younger got to ask what turned out to be the most popular question students came up with, according to Ms. Moore: “Have you ever touched a brain?”

Looking down at the students, Mr. Petravicz laughed.

“I have touched more brains than I can count!” he said.

And the classroom erupted again.

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