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Putting Heads Together at ‘Brains R Us’
March 3 Science and Education Town Hall to be Broadcast Online Later This Month

Inga Kiderra | March 10, 2008

On any given weekday, about a quarter of the U.S. population is occupied with the critical business of education — including 50 million students in K-12 public schools, six million more in private schools, 18 million in college, plus all of their teachers. Education is a big business, but a struggling one.

Brains Are Us logo

As the nation grapples with issues facing its troubled educational system, can the science of learning provide insights and solutions? Can dialogue and collaboration between scientists and educators point a way forward? Researchers at the Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center at UC San Diego believe so. On March 3, the center, along with The Science Network, held a public town hall to discuss the possibilities. “Brains R Us” brought together more than 300 researchers, educators, policymakers and parents for an interactive daylong discussion at the Salk Institute.

Featured speakers included, among many others, literacy advocate John Corcoran, author of the autobiography The Teacher Who Couldn't Read,” teen-brain expert Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman, founder of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. 

Each invited participant was, in the words of Science Network director Roger Bingham, asked to bring to the meeting “a thought bomb and lob it out into the room for discussion.”
Many of the participating scientists underlined the importance of neuroplasticity and neurogenesis — the ability of the brain, respectively, to form new connections and change over time and to produce new brain cells.

Fred Gage
Fred "Rusty" Gage

Newborn cells, emphasized Fred “Rusty” Gage, adjunct professor of neuroscience at UCSD and the Adler Professor at the Laboratory of Genetics at the Salk Institute, are inhibited by both acute and chronic stress. Environmental enrichment and physical activity, on the other hand, Gage said, play a salutary role.  (Possible translation: Don’t cut physical education classes. Pause when eliminating art and cultural studies, too.)

Kurt Fischer, president of the Society for Mind, Brian and Education at Harvard University, stressed that learning does not progress on a continual upward slope. Skills are built up, he said, sustained for a little while, then they collapse and are rebuilt all over again. We “need to build, then rebuild and rebuild again,” he said. “Learning takes a long time.”

Hal Pashler, UCSD psychology professor, spoke about the importance of spacing review sessions for maximum retention of information. Forgetting may be inevitable, but it can be delayed with optimally timed study and testing. Pashler’s lab has, with good results, applied some of its “spacing effect” findings in a history class at The Preuss School at UCSD.

Hal Pashler
Hal Pashler

Teachers and education policymakers, including representatives from the Council of Chief State School Officers, welcomed collaboration with researchers and urged scientists to speak in a language that laypeople can understand. Some called for a “clearinghouse” of information or brokers that would connect the often lamentably distant worlds of knowledge with practice and with policy.

Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, addressed the importance of motivation. School reform, he said, should begin with “making schools that children want to go to.”

Nobel Laureate Lederman worried about the ongoing failure to implement what we know and called for a national strategy —“national not federal.” He expressed hope that global climate change might today serve as a creative spur — much like the satellite Sputnik and the Cold War space race it helped launched once had.

Kathleen Leos, former assistant deputy secretary in the U.S. Department of Education and now president and CEO of the nonprofit International Institute for Language and Literacy Development, said that, with the upcoming change in national administration and reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, the political moment might now be right for effecting significant change.

Many echoed Paula Tallal of Rutgers University — co-director of the Temporal Dynamic of Learning Center’s Education and Outreach Center — who lamented the current focus on content in education. “We need more on building a better brain,” she said. How we learn is at least as, if not more, important than what we learn, she said, using the analogy of Internet access: You pay for broadband so you can access any content. We don’t want some of our children to get stuck with dial-up.

Roger Bingham
Roger Bingham

Virtually all of the participants said, like David Lightfoot, assistant director of the National Science Foundation, that conversations like the ones sparked by “Brains R Us” are a vital first step.

The town-hall format is one that The Science Network has used successfully several times to address such highly relevant topics at the “intersection of science and public policy” as science and religion (the “Beyond Belief” series), sleep and stem cell research.

“We’re interested in the synergy of different groups coming together,” said Bingham, who is also a scientist at the Salk Institute and UCSD. “We aim to create an environment in which disparate people can talk to and learn from one another. So the emphasis is on conversation rather than presentation.”

Based at UC San Diego, the multidisciplinary and multi-institutional Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center (TDLC) is one of six Science of Learning Centers funded by the National Science Foundation. The TDLC focuses on time and timing as critical to understanding how the brain learns and applies this understanding to improve educational practice.

“With ‘Brains R Us,’ we want take a long look at where we stand. We’re not successfully teaching the fundamentals, the three R’s, in our schools,” said Terry Sejnowski, co-director of the learning center and co-director of the center’s Education and Outreach Center, and also head of the Computational Neurobiology Lab at the Salk Institute and a professor of biology at UCSD. “The goal of the town hall, and TDLC more broadly, is to do what we call ‘in-reach.’ We realize that we, as scientists, don’t really understand all the problems and the practical challenges. So we need help from the experts out in the trenches to tell us which questions our research should ask.”

Terry Sejnowski
Terry Sejnowski

The meeting was organized by Bingham, Sejnowski and Tallal.  The TDLC is a collaborative consortium of UCSD, Rutgers University and Vanderbilt University. Gary Cottrell, professor of computer science and engineering at UCSD, is principal investigator of the TDLC and co-directs the center with Sejnowski and Andrea Chiba, associate professor of cognitive science at UCSD.

“Brains R Us” was co-sponsored by the UCSD Office of Research Affairs, the UCSD Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind, Calit2 at UCSD, the Scientific Learning Corp. and the Crick-Jacobs Center at the Salk Institute.

The Science Network webcast the event live and also taped it for later distribution online. Videos from “Brains R Us” are expected to be ready for viewing later in March; to check back for their availability, bookmark http://thesciencenetwork.org.

For more about the Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center, see http://tdlc.ucsd.edu.

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