January Volunteers of the Month: Brandon Holmes and Dan O'Brien of the Neuroscience Teaching Team
The Neuroscience Teaching Team has been doing an outstanding job, and Brandon Holmes and Dan O'Brien – the two current Neuro Team heads – deserve to be acknowledged for their roles in maintaining the excellence of this YSP program. The Neuroscience Teaching Team provides hands-on neuroscience demonstrations, either by renting a room on the Washington University campus and inviting students here or by personally making trips to different St. Louis schools to teach in individual classrooms as well as during general after-school sessions. Though the schedule is quite variable, the team usually goes out to schools about two to three times a semester and hosts students at WashU four to five times per semester.
Brandon has been involved with YSP for four years, ever since he attended an extracurricular activities fair and was impressed with the enthusiasm of YSP members and thought that volunteering with YSP would be a worthwhile way to spend his time. His favorite demo is the Neuroanatomy module, in which human or mouse brains are used to explain how the brain is organized, for its highly interactive nature. "There's no set way to teach it; you teach based on the needs of the students that show up that day. It can also be very discussion-based," explains Brandon. Even the younger students, once they recover from the shock factor, learn a lot from this demo and are very excited to find out more about the brain. Dan has been volunteering with YSP almost as long as Brandon – for 2 years ever since his first semester at WashU. He has a vastly different opinion about the Neuroanatomy demo, however. He asserts that knowledge-wise, this demo doesn't allow students to take a lot from it compared to some of the others; instead, Dan praises the Proprioception module, in which the Teaching Team demonstrates how the brain senses the body's position in space, because the students are able to see neuroscience in action. As everyone's teaching style is different, it is great that the Teaching Team has developed lesson plans spanning divergent ends of the spectrum – from impromptu, discussion-based ones to more structured experiments incorporating first-hand scientific experience – for the volunteers.
Dan and Brandon have been teaching with YSP for a number of years and are both examples of how valuable the volunteering experience can be. For instance, Dan says that he has evolved throughout his years of teaching; specifically, he now can better convey science to the lay audience. "It's definitely prepared me to convey my message to a broader audience, and it's also just given me confidence in presenting in general," he shares. Brandon envisions that he will stay in academia for his future career, and he thus anticipates that teaching will be a big aspect of his job. He firmly believes that, along with being a TA for other classes, being involved with YSP's Neuroscience Teaching Team definitely prepares him for his future. And in fact, the Teaching Team is a lot more fun because the students generally want to learn and choose to attend, and they are younger and more excited, making the experience very rewarding.
Looking to the future, Brandon reveals that he'd like to see the Neuro Teaching Team grow by supplying neuroscience teaching kits to teachers, and he and Dan are in the process of deciding what type of demo to include. Also, Brandon agrees with Stephanie Rodriguez's comment in a previous interview that a challenge YSP faces is its growth and whether or not it can maintain the quality of the programs. Brandon believes this would affect the Neuro Teaching Team and, from his experience, adds that an additional facet to this challenge is the limited time of the volunteers. As everyone is extremely busy, it may sometimes be difficult to conduct teaching outings, and perhaps certain requests for the team to visit will just need to be turned down. Dan is optimistic of the Neuro Team's ability to adapt to challenges and suggests that as long as there is strong leadership in YSP, the programs will be able to successfully train new volunteers to meet the demand.