Brain Healthy: Engaging Students in Citizen Science Brain Health and Wellness Investigations to Promote Data Science Literacy

  • Project Description

    Brain Healthy will engage students from diverse backgrounds in citizen science investigations of their own brain health and wellness, which is particularly relevant given COVID-related increased concern about mental health and well-being. The program will expose students to data science (a new area of major SEPA interest) and topics such as brain plasticity and stress management (which are tightly related to NIH-funded research) and will allow students to explore the relations between healthy lifestyle practices (e.g., physical exercise) and cognitive/affective measures. Through this experience, students will not only increase their conceptual understanding of the brain basis of healthy lifestyle choices, but they will also acquire important and widely applicable data analytic and communication practices.

  • Abstract

    Brain Healthy builds upon the success of BrainWaves, a prior NIH Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA)-supported program, which has been successfully implemented in 25 public New York City schools, reaching over 600 students. Our new proposed program, Brain Healthy, is responsive to one of the new areas of high SEPA programmatic interest: providing students with access to research-generated data to prepare students for data science careers. Brain Healthy will be designed by a multidisciplinary team across the University of Connecticut and New York University in partnership with public school teachers in Connecticut and New York City that primarily serve students from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). It will be implemented as a month-long unit within a 9th/10th grade core biology course.

    Students in the program will first participate in a large-scale “citizen science” research project by taking a comprehensive survey (partially developed by students themselves) about their health and lifestyle practices. Students will also measure their heart rate with fitness trackers and complete a computerized cognitive (Stroop) task and mood survey. They will learn about brain plasticity and how positive (e.g., physical exercise) and negative (e.g., stress) life experiences impact our brain. With support from near-peer mentors (NPMs), students will then design data-driven investigations utilizing the entire de-identified citizen science database collected across all the participating schools, exploring questions, such as how sleep quality relates to mood and how fitness level associates with ability to focus. The Brain Healthy platform will guide students through these investigations by providing scaffolding in critical steps of the process.

    The program will culminate in a school-wide science fair, where students will share their findings with the wider school community. The program will be accompanied by professional development (PD) courses for teachers and NPMs prior to school implementation with additional just-in-time support. The main educational research questions are how does participation in a “citizen science” brain health and wellness program impact: 1) Students’ conceptual understanding of data analysis and brain plasticity, and their attitudes toward STEM; 2) Teachers’ self-efficacy in facilitating data-driven student investigations; 3) NPMs’ mentoring ability and intent to persist in STEM. Three cohorts of 10 teachers will be recruited, each participating for three years, with the first year occurring prior to the Brain Healthy PD course (serving as a well-matched comparison). Across the 5- year project, ~1500 students are expected to participate in Brain Healthy. Project evaluation will utilize pre- and post-program surveys, semi-structured interviews, and classroom observations.

Associated SEPA Project(s)