Public engagement activities – short report

~200 pupils reached

Age groups: 10-18 years


1. Gateways: Can you read minds? (Nov 2017, for Year 8) ~40 pupils reached in total

An interactive workshop about what cognitive neuroscientist do and why it is interesting and useful to study the brain. Pupils played a game to learn how the neural signal travels from one cell to another and what is the role of axons/dendrites in this process. Then, they had to match brain scans to different tasks, learning how actions (e.g., speaking, moving a hand etc) are related to activity in different regions of the brain. The workshop aimed to provide some insight into how we can study the brain and to convey the message that cognitive neuroscientists cannot literally read minds, but they can related brain activity with behaviour using special techniques.


2. Audenshaw visit: Memories and seahorses (Jan 2018, for Year 10) ~30 pupils reached in total

The hippocampus (seahorse in Ancient Greek) is a part of the brain with a crucial role in learning and forming long term memories. The workshop focused on how our ability to learn and remember things is linked to the brain and how our memory abilities develop and change through the life span. We tackled several questions in an interactive way: Why do we not remember things that happened when we were infants? How can we improve our memory? How accurate is our memory? What happens to the brain in old patients who have difficulties remembering things (due to Alzheimer’s Disease).

3. British Science Week: The most powerful supercomputer in the world (Mar 2018, for different age groups: 11-15 years) ~100 pupils reached in total

During the workshop we debunked several brain myths (e.g., ‘We only use 10% of the brain.’) and pupils had to solve a puzzle trying to connect different neuroimaging techniques to the actual images they produce. Also, they learnt about connectivity between different brain regions using Twister (…with a twist -> Brainster). Finally, we played with a bit of ‘magic’ – pupils experienced the mirror hand illusion and we discussed how the brain feels where the body is and how we can trick that.

4. PEWS: Psychology, Education and Well-Being in School (June 2018, 4 days in school and 2 days at the University) for Year 6. 35 pupils taking part in all activities

The school days involved 2.5 hour sessions in which we had interactive activities on psychological well-being (led by Dr Louise Egan), on health Psychology (led by Chelsea Sawyer) and on Cognitive Neuroscience (led by me). During the Cog Neuro day, pupils learnt about the brain cells and their different parts using modelling clay to build neurons. We also did a small experiment to show how the cerebro-spinal fluid protects the brain like a cushion. Then, pupils learnt about healthy foods for the brain by ‘making’ healthy cocktails combining different ingredients.

For the days at the University, I designed a treasure hunt activity which involved discovering the campus but also completing some tasks – pupils enjoyed it a lot. We also had a lab tour to show them how we collect EEG data. In addition, pupils found out more about what they could study at the University and how is life as a student at UoM. The feedback we received for PEWS from both teachers and pupils highlighted that the activities were well-suited for the age group, the pupils had a fun during the school and University days and they learnt a lot of new things.

PEWS has now been shortlisted for the ‘Making a Difference’ Awards for the Outstanding Widening Participation section.


5. Big Brain Summer School: The Big Brain Box (Memory Maze edition) (July 2018, 2 days at the University, ~25 Year 10 pupils reached)

The Big Brain Summer School is a 2-day event that had been running annually for a few years now and it consists of a series of interactive sessions during which pupils learn more about the brain: how we perceive the environment, how we can look at the brain, a bit of neuroanatomy, and about neurological disorders. I have been involved in developing and facilitating one of the 4 sessions of the event: The Big Brain Box. Based on the concept of escape rooms, the box game included a series of 10 riddles pupils had to solve to unlock messages about memory and the brain. The session ended with a reflection circle during which pupils had to ask each other questions about the things they learnt – this part of the activity aimed to evaluate the level of knowledge they gained from the playing the game and to also summaries the key learning points.

The game has been a success so far and it will be used again in March in 2 schools, as part of the GM Higher initiative.

6. MAP tutoring (June-Oct 2018, for Year 12, 6 students reached)

Manchester Access Programme is a widening participation scheme for local Year 12 students who meet specific academic and background criteria. The aim of the scheme is to support entry to higher education (to research-intensive universities), through the completion of a portfolio of work demonstrating specific knowledge and skills. Part of the portfolio is represented by an essay students have to write and submit. As a MAP tutor, I supported 6 Year 12 students to choose a topic and plan the essay (first face-to-face meeting with each of them), then I gave them extensive feedback on a first draft (both face-to-face and written), and I marked their final essays – all six of them passed. It was a very interesting journey for me as it involved a different type of work than I did before with groups – it required some coaching skills when working with different individuals: some very confident and others quite shy. But in the end, they all learnt a lot from our meetings based on the improvements they made from the first draft to the final version of the essays. It was probably one of the most rewarding experiences when I got their emails in which the thanked me after the programme finished.

Link for MAP:


Final reflection

Overall, all these experiences of engaging the public with our research and the University life have been extremely rewarding. Being in the position to talk about scientific research to the general public made me realise why I am so passionate about the work I am doing; so when things were not going very smoothly in my own project, the fact that I had to take a step back and look to the bigger picture in order to talk about it for the others motivated me to keep going. I remember one day during the British Science Week, when I was talking in front of a group of pupils about the first time I saw some brain images (PET scans) – which was the specific point in time when I decided I really want to study the brain. 6 years after, I am living my own dream – that was a revealing experience which gave me motivation that whatever I can dream I can achieve sooner or later. On this journey, I also had the chance to meet and work with amazing people who inspired me and helped me on the way. In my spare time, I am involved in international youth projects where we use non-formal methods to teach various topics (e.g., sustainability, social entrepreneurship, employability skills). This is where I came across gamification of the learning experience and I became very passionate about creating games for educational purposes. As a WP fellow, I had ‘unlimited playground’ to experiment with all my ideas of creating games to teach specific concepts. I could then pilot and test them, get feedback and improve them for the next groups. Apart from this, I learnt how to connect with different groups of young people, how to adapt to different group needs and how to evaluate if I achieved the planned learning outcomes.

I will end this story with my favourite feedback from the youngsters:

“Thank you for being a really good tutor, I have most definitely learnt from this experience.”

“I just wanted to say a huge thank you for giving up your time to mark my assignment twice and being patient with me too. It was really nice to meet you and I hope you all the best in your future.”

“Now that MAP is coming to an end I just wanted to send you this email to say thank you for all the help you gave me, in order to complete my academic assignment, over the past few months. It is greatly appreciated and thank you for taking the time to mark and give feedback. It was lovely working with you.”

“I really enjoyed Carmen’s subject and she inspired me to follow her footsteps and be a Psychology person.”