When Neural Connections, a University of North Carolina Department of Psychology and Neuroscience outreach group, shows up at middle schools, the kids are excited and curious. They’re full of questions and Marsha Penner, lecturer in that department and the leader of the group, admits she doesn’t always know the answers. She loves when that happens.
Adults can be more inhibited. A drink or two, however, can liven them up. Then come the questions.
“The after-hours events are great. People have a beer and they walk around the exhibits and their inhibition is lowered a little bit,” Penner says. “We usually find that after the first hour, people start to relax a little bit more. By the end of the evening, they’re asking great questions.”
Thursday evening, Neural Connections will be among local food vendors and groups from Duke and N.C. State universities to share the latest in food science at the Museum of Life and Science’s Science of Eats program. (Note: the event is sold out, but a handful of combo tickets remain for both Science of Eats and the VIP event with Kinston chef Vivian Howard of “A Chef’s Life.”) Neural Connections’ inquiry-based experiments get participants involved. Rather than dole out facts and data about how the mind works, Penner and her group of undergraduates come armed with questions and experiments. This time, it all relates to food.
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And they bring a brain with them.
“They let our guests touch a brain,” says Allison Campbell, Life and Sciences’ manager for fundraising events and Science of Eats’ coordinator. “ It’s amazing, it blows their minds ... an actual brain!”
The museum does five adults-only programs like this annually, and they’re focused on subjects like beer, wine, cocktails and sour food. The attendees don’t tend to be people who come to the museum with their children, but a younger crowd – mainly graduate students and young professionals. And they’re hungry for this kind of experience. This tends to be a science-savvy group, Campbell says, but she agrees with Penner that adults aren’t typically as willing to step outside their comfort zone as children. They need that extra push.
“A lot of people are, in their day, maybe not as intellectually challenged as they’d like to be,” Penner says. “Getting to go to a place that is technically for kids, where kids usually get to explore the exhibits and ask the questions, I think that kind of engagement and asking questions is something people don’t get to do.”
It’s good for the students too, says Penner. Alcohol is served at these events, some of which explicitly focus on some specific beverage, and she’s glad her students witness adults drinking responsibly. She’s open with her Neural Connections group, and the ones who come with her to after-hours events like this are 21 and older.
Penner challenges her students to become science communicators the same way they learn to be scientists – by experimenting and seeing what works with a range of ages and in different settings. Neural Connections has also gone to museums, planetariums and underserved schools in Franklin County. “The activities themselves remain the same, it’s just how we talk about them with our audience,” Penner says.
It’s still a young group, though: Neural Connections formed a little more than a year ago. In the future, Penner would like to expand the program and its resources. She’s seeking grants and partners and has a concrete goal of having Neural Connections going year-round, of offering day courses through Morehead Planetarium or Life and Sciences where students of any age can come and do neuroscience experiments. Penner doesn’t want to change the makeup of the group or how it operates, she just wants to reach more people.
Thursday night, though, they’ll be at Life and Science, talking food science with young professionals, and explaining that you need a healthy brain and healthy receptors to be able to taste things.
Reach Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What: Science of Eats
When: 6:30-10 p.m. June 2
Where: Museum of Life and Science, Durham
How much: Individual tickets are sold out, but you can still get in with a $150 combo ticket to Science of Eats and a VIP Meet the Chef event with Vivian Howard of “A Chef’s Life.” The Meet the Chef event is 5-6:30 p.m.