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Post by Former NIMH Director Thomas Insel: Science Education – Investing for the Future

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Earlier this week, the New York Times reported the latest results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test that compares educational achievement of 15-year-olds across 65 countries. While the Times focused on the superiority of students in Shanghai, the less conspicuous, inconvenient truth was the relatively weak performance of U.S. students—14th in reading skills, 17th in science, and 25th in math. These kinds of numbers do not bode well for America’s continuing to lead in science and engineering, a warning sounded previously in a 2007 National Academy of Science’s report called Rising Above the Gathering Storm. Improving science K-12 education is not the core mission of the NIMH, but we cannot ignore the prospect that unless we do more to improve science education in the United States, the scientists and the science of 2030 may be mostly elsewhere.

How can NIMH contribute to science education for both children and adults? Recently we have had some great opportunities. On October 23-24, NIMH, along with several other NIH institutes, participated in the USA Science and Engineering Festival on the National Mall in Washington, DC. The festival was created to promote public interest in science through engaging, hands-on activities. NIH was a sponsor of the event, and participated to promote interest in biomedical careers and the importance of research to everyone’s health.

Over 40 NIMH scientists and staff planned and executed numerous interesting activities designed to increase awareness of the brain and mental health among kids of all ages. One exhibit provided a walk-through sensory experience of the brain’s four cortical lobes and their functions. Others provided fun activities designed to show kids how our brains compensate when our senses are challenged by external stimuli, and what parts of the brain control which functions. The festival, which attracted thousands of kids and adults from across the nation, was a huge success for both the families who visited and the NIMH staff who participated.

The USA Science and Engineering Festival was a great way to celebrate the fun of science. Recently NIMH staff had a special opportunity to reach school-aged children in classrooms around the nation by joining the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Drug Facts Chat Day. The NIDA Chat Day, an annual event since 2007, affords students and teachers an opportunity for online, live discussion about addiction, drugs and their effects. This year, 5,600 questions were asked, with more than 60 schools participating from 23 states. Often during these chats, students have mental health-related questions as well. NIMH staff fielded questions about medications used to treat ADHD, how to help a friend in danger of suicide, and other mental health issues on students’ minds.

We’ve also developed formal educational products for students designed to fit into established educational frameworks. The Science of Mental Illness curriculum for grades 6-8 includes lesson plans that provide insight into the biological basis of mental illnesses. It teaches how scientific evidence and research can help us understand the causes of mental illness and lead to treatments and, ultimately, cures.

For high school students, NIMH developed The Brain’s Inner Workings: Activities for Grades 9 through 12. It is a comprehensive collection of multimedia resources and inquiry-based activities consistent with the National Science Education Standards and designed to be plugged into any science curriculum. The kit, which includes a teacher’s manual, student manual, and videos that graphically illustrate brain circuitry, helps teachers and students learn about the structure, function and cognitive aspects of the human brain.

Several new educational products are in the pipeline. Brain Basics—soon to be online—will include an interactive component to illustrate the basic structure of the brain, how the brain develops, how genes and environment affect the brain, how different parts of the brain communicate with each other, and how changes in the brain can lead to mental disorders like depression.

Finally, formal science education doesn’t stop with our children. Currently in production are several online training modules designed to introduce neuroscience concepts to psychiatry residents. The modules hopefully will encourage these residents to consider conducting neuroscience research or at least consider research findings when choosing treatment options for their patients. The first module will focus on research in cognitive deficits, a core feature of schizophrenia.

Whatever the age group, or whatever the format, the message is consistent—NIMH needs to contribute to maintaining a scientifically literate society. Our future will depend on students—whether they are sixth graders or psychiatrists in training—who are skilled in analytical thinking and creative inquiry, and possess a passion for science.