Sheep brains inspire second graders

May 26, 2010

For a group of second grade students, their meeting at the picnic tables at Dixie Bee Elementary School on May 26 was serious business.

One-by-one, they were handed safety goggles and rubber gloves. They were warned to keep their dirty and contaminated hands out of their faces. They were offered seats at plastic covered tables and handed Styrofoam plates. Then their real work began.

Each student took a turn handling a sheep brain looking for the spinal cord, the thalamus or the cerebellum.

"You see this part here," ISU biology professor Rusty Gonser asked the group of children as they leaned across the tables and stretched to glare over his shoulder at the freshly dissected softball-sized brain he held in his hands.

"Does that look like cauliflower to you," he asked. "That's the cerebellum. And do you see these things that look like worms, these are called the gyrus."

Even though his official spring semester teaching responsibilities ended nearly two weeks ago, Gonser spent part of his summer break leading the youngsters through dissecting activities most of them wouldn't have experienced until high school.

Gonser, whose recent research has centered on examining the genetic structure of the Puerto Rican frog and studying gene flow and genetic diversity of the white-tailed deer, said making the one-day transition from university to elementary classroom was challenging.

"A major difference is that I have to keep track of what I use to cut open the brains," Gonser said. "This morning's group was a little more precocious than what I'm used to."

While Gonser didn't allow the youngsters to actually make the cuts, each young student took a turn holding, poking and smelling the dissected animal parts.

"Usually the kids don't want to touch it, but today they were hands on," he said. "At one point we were wondering ‘Where'd the brain go?' and some kid's got it walking off with it."

One nine-year-old girl said the experience made her want to do more dissecting - perhaps even on human body parts - so that she could diagnose why someone might be sick.

"It was really weird," she said. "I had no idea there was all of that black goo inside an eyeball. Cutting open brains and eyeballs is fun."

Gonser first partnered with Terre Haute's Dixie Bee Elementary School last year to introduce students to animal organs. The exercise was so well-received that the school's Parent Teacher Organization agreed to purchase the supplies in order for him to return this year, second grade teacher Tim Moss said.

"The kids are so connected during this process. It's just a wonderful thing," Moss said. "Every question brings a new question. Throughout the exercise, they get to experience part of what it feels like to be a scientist."

Second grade teacher Kathy Canal had been preparing students for the dissection day with paper models of the human body that students cut and colored in the classroom.

"Paper models are wonderful, but to actually see a real brain is fabulous," Canal said. "We'll go back and talk about their impressions of what the real thing looked like.

"They talk about this for a long time. It makes quite an impression on them."

Making that impression is what keeps Gonser visiting the grade school.

"When you look at science literacy in this country, just getting kids interested in science somehow is going to help their curiosity," Gonser said. "A lot of the processing skills that scientists use develop early on, and you use them whether you become a scientist or not. So the reasoning skills, the curiosity, the logic, all of that's being stimulated so even if they don't become scientists they'll begin to use their brain a little bit differently.

"No pun intended."

Contact: Rusty Gonser, assistant professor, ISU Department of Biology at 812-237-2395 or rusty.gonser@indstate.edu.

Photos: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/879937655_ordwu-D.jpg

ISU biology professor Rusty Gonser demonstrates dissection techniques for a group of second grade students (ISU photo/Kara Berchem).

http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/879938076_V5vXK-D.jpg

A Dixie Bee Elementary School second grader shows her aversion to dissecting sheep brains during a demonstration from ISU biology professor Rusty Gonser (ISU Photo/Kara Berchem).

Writer: Rachel Wedding McClelland, assistant director of media relations, ISU Communications and Marketing at 812-237-3790 or rachel.mcclelland@indstate.edu.