by Allie Sinclair, PhD Candidate, Department of Psychology & Neuroscience
Students from Neuroscience Service Learning: Brain Connections (NEUROSCI 444S), taught by Minna Ng, collaborated with the Durham Children's Initiative and the Downtown Durham YMCA to design educational activities about neuroscience. The service-learning project helped students understand the cognitive-developmental stages of learning when targeting specific ages and grade levels. Students explored communities, collected information on needs and requests, and collaborated with partners to design the curriculum. Throughout the service experience, students adopted culturally sensitive practices and explore ways to make the educational activities maximally accessible.
In Spring 2021, I was the SLA for PSY444: Neuroscience Service Learning. It was a wonderful experience to work through the first iteration of this class, helping to shape the course content and define the goals and outcomes. This class was distinctive because of the hands-on and team-based format. Students worked in teams of 3 or 4 throughout the semester, collaborating on written assignments, a research project, a presentation, and critical evaluation of their own service contributions. The service component of the class evolved over the course of the semester.
At the beginning of the semester, we focused on brainstorming and refining ideas for learning kits. Communication with our community partners was especially important during this early brainstorming stage. Some students generated overly ambitious ideas for kits or failed to consider the needs and resources of our community partners. For example, a kit for a group of kids at the YMCA should have simple instructions that do not burden the group supervisor. A demonstration video or other materials might be helpful for this setting. On the other hand, a kit for the Durham Children’s Initiative, which requested take-home materials for individual families, should be entirely self-contained. Unlike youth programs at the YMCA, children at home may not have access to computers, the internet, scissors, or coloring supplies. By communicating with our community partners, we discovered these guidelines and limitations.
Towards the end of the semester, there was a transition from communication and brainstorming to large-scale production and assembly.
All teams devoted considerable time, both during and outside of class, to mass-producing their learning kit materials. We then sorted, packaged, labeled, and delivered our learning kits to our community partners. For the Durham Children’s Initiative, we bundled sets of five learning kits according to target age range; each of these bundles was intended for one family to take home. For the YMCA, we created many copies of each individual learning kit; each of these kits could be administered to a large group of children at once. We also had the students curate all of their learning kit materials in Google Drive folders, creating an accessible repository for educators to reproduce the activities. This step was important for ensuring that the activities are reproducible and can have a lasting impact.
Overall, I advise future SLAs to attend class, forge connections with students, and engage critically with their learning kit ideas. The students will require guidance and feedback to choose kits that are practical and appropriate for our community partners. Taking the time to pilot-test their kits and proofread their written instructions is also important. Low-quality kits (i.e., poorly assembled or difficult to understand) cannot be given away to our community partners. It is always better to prevent such issues by giving personalized feedback early and often. The SLA also plays an important role as a liaison between the students and the professor; the SLA can be more accessible and help make students feel comfortable sharing half-baked ideas, asking for advice, or coming forward about team conflicts.