'Brainworks': fun, 'cool' and mind-changing, kids say

It’s cool to see how the brain works, the scientists of tomorrow observe after attending the “Brainworks” program at Cedars-Sinai.

Dear Dr. Black, I would like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to go to Brainworks. It helped me figure out if I want to be a doctor when I’m older. I also learned a lot of new words and what a neurosurgeon does. The activities there were fun and interesting – Anthony, a seventh-grade Brainworks participant

HH Brainworks

When busloads of middle school students arrive at the medical center for this annual  program, faculty and staff of the Department of Neurosurgery and the Maxine Dunitz Neurosurgical Institute have 3.5 hours to impress upon 140 young minds the excitement that comes from working in science and medicine.

And when the students write back to express their gratitude, it’s clear that seeds have been planted among the hundreds of teens who have attended Brainworks programs over more than a decade as part of the medical center’s myriad community outreach programs.

Dear Dr. Black, I really enjoyed the [Brainworks] program. … I really got an idea of what I want to be. ….  I am considering being a doctor. … I thought that there are people out there that need help, and doctors can help them. I would like to help people, especially little kids. A pediatrician is probably the job for me – Cecilia, a middle-school Brainworks participant

The seventh- and eighth-graders – often students from struggling communities – are chosen by teachers to attend Brainworks, based on interest and achievement in science. The day’s schedule includes science-oriented games; individual, hands-on and group activities; presentations by research scientists; and visits to interactive areas such as:

  • A station with a surgical microscope, 3-D imaging and a phantom skull that gives participants a chance to perform virtual surgery.
  • A neuropathology station with slides showing what different kinds of brain tumor cells look like under a microscope.
  • A vital signs station where students have their vital signs taken and learn how these measurements are used in patient treatment.
  • A surgical instruments station with actual tools used in the operating room.
  • Model spines for hands-on experience with spinal surgery instruments and techniques.
  • An advances in research station where students can perform DNA, tumor and laser experiments with scientists. The researchers describe their progress with brain tumor vaccines, immunotherapy for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases and methods of crossing the blood-brain barrier to fight tumors.
  • A rehabilitation station where students learn how patients feel when undergoing therapy. They also meet the hospital’s canine pet therapists.
  • An allied health professionals booth where students learn about the many kinds of skills needed to staff a hospital and neuroscience center.

In 1999 – Brainworks’ second year – Keith L. Black, MD, chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery and director of the Maxine Dunitz Neurosurgical Institute, said he hoped the program would spark scientific interest in students who might not have the opportunities he had in his youth. His father encouraged in him a passion for knowledge and instilled a sense of confidence, Dr Black observes. When he was an eighth-grader, he started visiting laboratories at Case Western University in Cleveland. He wrote his first published research paper at age 17, earning the prestigious Westinghouse Science Award.

“One of the things I enjoyed most when I was a young student was getting a chance to hang around research laboratories,” Dr. Black said. “It was very exciting, very stimulating. Brainworks came about because we wanted to expose as many young minds as we could to how exciting science is—and especially how fascinating the brain is.”

He envisioned Brainworks as a way for students to meet physicians, explore medical facilities, tour laboratories and get a close-up view of research under way. He and the other planners hoped the program would provide motivation and encouragement for students to stay in school, pursue higher education and consider the possibilities of a career in medicine. Brainworks is one of many programs sponsored by the nonprofit medical center to benefit the community.

Dear Dr. Black, I would like to thank you for inviting our school to the Brainworks program. … The activity that I liked the most was when we could do surgery on the fake head with the jelly stuff inside like it is a brain. I learned a lot that day, like our brains are very sensitive – Taryn, a seventh-grade Brainworks participant