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Courtney Stevens, assistant psychology professor Courtney Stevens, assistant psychology professor

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Courtney Stevens assigns outreach projects to inspire her students

Sydney Moberg ’13 was nervous about dissecting a sheep brain. But once she held a scalpel in her hand, she discovered the only thing she didn’t enjoy about it was the smell.

“I was fascinated by how the brain looked, how it felt and where each individual part was located,” says Moberg, a psychology major. “When it came time to choose an outreach project, I knew I wanted to teach a brain dissection lab. I wanted other students to have the same type of experience I did.”

Through professor Courtney Stevens’ Cognitive Neuroscience course at Willamette University, students pick an outreach project that connects neuroscience to real-world issues, and in doing so, act out the university’s motto, “Not unto ourselves alone are we born.”

Some, like Moberg, have helped high school students dissect a sheep brain, while others have taught a brain class at Bush Elementary School or discussed the effects of drug addiction with incarcerated teens.

Through community outreach, Stevens hopes to link neuroscience content to her students’ individual career goals and interests. She also wants to connect her students with neuroscience content and resources they can access after graduating.

“Some students come in not believing that cognitive neuroscience is relevant to their future,” Stevens says. “But as they begin to work on their projects, they see the connections between neuroscience and the real world.”

Stevens’ program has been adopted in classes at the University of Oregon. Her program also received praise from the Society of Neuroscience, which awarded Stevens the Junior Faculty Next Generation Award in October for outstanding contributions to public communication, education and outreach about neuroscience.

“For me, the beauty of the outreach project is that students take ownership of the material,” Stevens says. “They choose what they will do. They’re the ones making connections within the community.”

Community Partnerships

Stevens developed the Cognitive Neuroscience course in 2008. Back then, outreach activities were relatively uncommon in undergraduate, neuroscience classes — and they still are today.

“For large classes of 300 students, there would be concerns about quality control,” Stevens says. “There’d be little incentive for faculty members to do this because it’s too much of a burden.”

But in Stevens’ class, not only is there no need for outside funding, students absorb the responsibility.

First, they pick a neuroscience project that interests them. The project features a tangible component that may be evaluated — such as a video or a set of lesson plans.

Students then develop an evaluation rubric that describes what A-, B- and C-level work looks like. Prior to implementing their projects, they submit a project proposal, which Stevens evaluates to help them refine their plans. 

When delivered, supervising teachers and participants help grade the presentations, worth up to 10 percent of the students’ final grade.

So far, more than 75 Willamette undergraduates — most of whom are psychology, exercise science and biology majors — have taken the upper-division course.

Two of these students are Linnea Hardlund ’13 and Jennifer Wade ’13, who taught a brain class at Bush Elementary. Through pictures and demonstrations, they showcased the lobes of the brain and the functions of each lobe.

As part of the interactive class, the primary students colored worksheets on the brain and ate a “brainfood” snack of frozen blueberries, which stimulates healthy brain function.

Hardlund and Wade say the outreach project not only challenged them to think critically, it forced them to find creative ways to share their knowledge.

“Professor Stevens’ class was one of the best I have taken at Willamette,” says Hardlund, a biology major. “The outreach project allowed us to take our knowledge from the classroom and bring it full circle in a real-life situation.”

Making a Difference

Maxx Kaplan ’11 also enjoyed Stevens’ class. For his project, he and another student gave a PowerPoint presentation to youths incarcerated at the Hillcrest Youth Correctional Facility in Salem.

The presentation focused on the neural effects of drugs and the biological explanations for cravings and addiction.

“We wanted the youths to come away with an understanding that the brain is a growing, changing organ, and that they weren’t necessarily doomed by their family history or past experiences, ” says Kaplan, a psychology major who had interned at the facility.

For Kaplan, seeing the teens make connections between his presentation and their own experiences proves Stevens understands the value of community outreach.

“Professor Stevens knows what she’s talking about, and everyone in the classroom knows it,” he says.

Going forward, Stevens plans to continue soliciting feedback from students and area partners to improve the outreach activities.

“I want my students to do more than read a textbook and take an exam. I want them to be creative and to take ownership of the material,” Stevens says. “They’ve done that. Some of their work has blown me away.”