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Brain Detectives

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UCL Institute of Education, University College London

Brain Detectives is a public engagement and research initiative – a fun science club – for children aged between 6 and 14 years, based at the Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE) at UCL Institute of Education, University College London. Brain Detectives was designed to make participation in scientific research more enjoyable and rewarding for children. Children are invited to come into the Institute to take part in half-day workshops during which they engage in stories and interactive activities designed to teach them about the mind and brain, and also take part in some experiments that can help us learn about how children view and interpret the world around them. Brain Detectives On Tour is an extension of the original workshop, designed specifically for children with special educational needs, particularly children with autism, who are often excluded from learning opportunities just like this. Autism affects the way that a person interacts with and experiences the world around them. Many children and young people are over-sensitive to different noises, smells or sights. Therefore these 1-hour events are tailored to the needs of these children to give them a chance to make sense of their sensory input, and understand what the brain is, within the context of engaging activities.

  • Project aims
    • The aims of Brain Detectives are twofold. The first is to promote and provide the opportunity to participate in a brain science club to any child or young person who can benefit from it – including children with disabilities. The second aim is to encourage children, young people and families to take part in research projects within an environment that is fun, engaging and rewarding.
    • One parent of a child who recently took part said: “She went home buzzing with enthusiasm and ideas, and said she’d love to do another one.” Another said: “They had a brilliant time. They obviously loved having so much attention from so many people. They also thought that the games and activities were great.”
    • One child who had taken part said: “It was really interesting – they gave us fun games and challenges and I really liked being a detective. I want to go again soon!”
    • For Brain Detectives On Tour, the aim is to enable children with autism to make sense of their sensory input and to understand the concept of the brain. Many of these children have limited spoken communication and so the team work closely with their teachers, who are able to report whether the aims are met.
  • Mutual benefits
    • For children and young people taking part in Brain Detectives events held at the Institute, they get the opportunity to visit a university and learn about the scientific process, and to experience how fun and interesting brain science can be. At the same time, researchers have the opportunity to improve their skills at explaining complex scientific concepts in an accessible and engaging way. The team also constantly learn from the young people – about their perceptions of, and attitude towards, the brain, mind and science more broadly, which in turn impacts how the activities and messages are delivered.
    • The On Tour events have also provided researchers and students with the opportunity both to engage with a group of children who are often neglected from current research due to their limited language and also to think carefully about how to tailor the events to the specific needs of these children. These sessions are also very useful for maintaining good working relationships with schools.
  • Activities
    • Brain Detectives characters provide a child-friendly vehicle for demonstrating the nature of research. These characters each play a role in the mystery that children work towards solving as they take part in tasks and collect “clues about the mind”. These clues could include, for example, something about the structure of the human brain or about a famous psychologist’s seminal finding. The team have also sought to be creative with the materials used for the Brain Detectives On Tour events. Everyday objects and recycled materials (both for sustainability and financial reasons) are used to give children a chance to make sense of the things they experience – from using items such as toilet rolls to make kaleidoscopes to explore vision, old Christmas decorations to explore touch, and empty yoghurt pots to allow children to make instruments to focus on sound.
  • Top tips
    • 1. Be prepared.
    • Organising these events take a great deal of preparation and is a genuine team effort. There is a Brain Detectives Manual so that newcomers understand the structure of the events and what is required and expected of them to ensure that events smoothly. Parents are asked to provide as many details about their children as possible (e.g., dietary requirements, attention-related difficulties) so that the team can respond appropriately on the day.
    • 2. Be flexible.
    • Some children know more about brain science than others so team members need to tailor the information directly at their level. For On Tour events, the team needs to be particularly flexible with timings, materials and the approach they take. Given the often-complex needs of these children, the events themselves sometimes require refining ‘on the fly’. Visiting schools before the event can be very useful – to get to know the children and to get tips from teachers.
    • 3. Be fun.
    • Doing brain science is a serious business but it can also be fun! Many efforts are made to ensure that the experiments and research in which children take part are engaging and ensure that they get involved. The brain- and mind-related learning activities, while informative, also need to be fun. Team members also need to be prepared to be creative in their approach, using drama, story-telling and games to get often-complex ideas across to children.