Carrie MacNabb's background was in developmental neuroscience, using cell cultures to look for “a gene that we thought would affect whether multipotent cells could become a specific type of neuron,” she explains. (Multipotent cells can become one of several kinds of cells, as compared to totipotent stem cells, which can become any kind of cell.) But although Carrie adores neuroscience, she decided that the traditional Ph.D. track into a research career was not for her. “Most of the academics I know who have Ph.D.s have a hard time balancing work and the other aspects of their lives. I wanted space for family and friends in my life.”
Reaching out to middle schoolersCarrie opted for a master’s degree, and when one of her thesis advisors recommended a position managing and building a model program called BrainScience on the Move, “It was like he’d read my mind,” Carrie recalls. “I hadn’t been looking for a job in education, though I had the interest and desire.” (The program is now called BRAIN to Middle Schools, BRAIN being an acronym for Bringing Resources, Activities, and Inquiry to Neuroscience). Targeted at middle school teachers and students, the program focuses on helping teachers create neuroscience units for their students. Teachers learn to present activities like a sheep brain dissection, or a series of experiments to see how the tiny worm called C. elegans responds to different chemical agents. “That gives kids an opportunity to design their own experiments, which is one of our goals,” she explains.
The point of the program is to give teachers an additional set of skills, experiences, and resources for teaching inquiry-based neuroscience. Why the focus on middle school? “Because kids at that age are experiencing a lot of things that are easily connected with the brain in terms of ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Why does my body look this way?’” Carrie explains. “Do I want to smoke, or speed-race around town? We find middle school audiences very interested in trying to figure out why they do the things they do.” That impulse is what drew Carrie herself to neuroscience when she decided she wanted to pursue something more concrete than psychology.
Offering authentic experiences with science“I’m terrified of the ‘No Child Left Behind’ program implementation because it’s moving away from creating thinkers and problem-solvers,” Carrie says bluntly. “What I love about science, when it’s taught well, are the opportunities for students to handle materials, ask their own questions, and to come up with testable ways to answer their questions.”
She feels neuroscience can be done at any level as long as the approach is developmentally appropriate and takes the national standards for science education into consideration—for example, talking to younger students about the senses. “I’ve done neuroscience things with pre-kindergartners,” she says. “It’s just a matter of language. And you can teach reading and math through science.” She’d like to see more hands-on science (instead of just lectures), which mediates differences in children’s language skills and cultures. The approach, she maintains, “has the potential to increase participation by women, especially if it involves work in groups of four or less where there are opportunities for everyone to share materials.” Same-sex groupings during the middle school years are also a plus, “because the girls are less likely to go, ‘Ooh, ick, a brain!’ and more likely to participate.”
Raising conscious decision makersCarrie feels that the best reason to teach neuroscience in schools is to explain the biological basis of decision making: that the brain elicits and responds in specific ways to different behaviors, and that these parameters change as kids grow. As she puts it, “Self-awareness and knowledge are the best tools we can give people, at any age.”
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Name: Carrie MacNabb
Born: Braham, MN, 1968
Where I go to watch IMAX films: Science Museum of Minnesota, in St. Paul, or at the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley
Job: Neuroscience outreach coordinator for the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Minnesota
Education: B.A. in chemistry, with a minor in neuroscience, from Lawrence University in Appleton, WS; master’s degree in physiology, with a minor in neuroscience, from the University of Minnesota
Book/s I'd want if I were stranded on a desert island: I just read this great science-fiction series by Wen Spencer. I like “what if?” stories.
Favorite place to visit: Large bodies of water. I like scuba diving a lot.
Favorite food: It would have to be a tie between pan-fried dumplings, artichokes, and strawberry-rhubarb pie.
Favorite artist/kind of music: Things with syncopated beats. I like electronica, but I also like soulful girl music.
Biking experiences: I like cycling, especially where there’s no car traffic so I can space out and daydream about the universe.