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Human Brain (and Senses) Reported in Boston

Larry Malone, Co-Director of FOSS, Lawrence Hall of Science
September 04, 2001 | Observations by Larry

Top image: Terry Shaw and Pam Pelletier dissecting a cow eye.

Sometimes you need a third eye to penetrate dense subjects and see them clearly. That current ran through the week-long FOSS middle school workshop on the campus of Northeastern University in Boston the second week in July. The main attraction was the Human Brain and Senses Course. Susan Brady, Linda De Lucchi, and Larry Malone had the luxury of almost enough time to thoroughly present the course to an enthusiastic assemblage of middle school educators from around the country. The primary goals of the workshop were to prepare the participants to teach the course confidently to students and to act as Human Brain and Senses staff developers. The secondary goal was to look beneath the surface–any surface–to explore deep truths.

Marilyn Decker and BT Anderson investigate
peripheral vision.

Marilyn Decker and BT Anderson investigate peripheral vision.

Last fall at an NSTA convention we mentioned the idea of a Human Brain and Senses workshop to Marilyn Decker and Pam Pelletier of the Center for the Enhancement of Science and Mathematics Education program (CESAME). They discussed how great it would be to hold the workshop on their campus. They were particularly excited because they are affiliated with the CenSSIS (Center for Subsurface Sensing and Imaging Systems) engineering center on their campus and saw an opportunity to bring the CenSSIS expertise into the workshop plan.

CenSSIS has a number of high-powered engineering research centers as members, including the optics lab on the Northeastern Campus, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Massachusetts General Hospital. Each of these engineering groups was engaged in looking below the surface of something to find out what's going on. Marilyn and Pam immediately made the connection between the diverse interests of the CenSSIS groups and the challenges of studying the brain's structures and functions without disturbing its integrity. Their enthusiasm was enough to convince us that Boston was the place for the workshop. We started planning.

The results are history now. The workshop started on Sunday afternoon with a get-acquainted reception and dinner at the Boston Museum of Science. After introductions, we steered the group to the human body wing, where we explored brain physiology, optical illusions, reaction time, depth perception, etc. A fine supper and a show in the IMAX theater about Ernest Shackelton's Antarctic adventure wrapped up the first day.

Marilyn Decker and BT Anderson investigate
peripheral vision.

Ann Debarros showing off the cow eye iris and pupil.

Monday and Tuesday we tackled the course, covering the first six investigations. We also had a short stint in the computer lab to become familiar with the CD-ROM and a quick tour of one of the laser research labs on campus. We saw exploratory systems for looking under Earth's surface for land mines and some emerging technologies for 3-D imaging of human joints and microscopic imaging of the cell interiors. Amazing stuff–the third eye in action.

Wednesday we took a trip to Woods Hole to see some emerging technologies for imaging the sea floor. We visited the prototype of the latest ROV (remotely operated vehicle) called ABE, short for autonomous benthic explorer. What makes ABE the cutting-edge imager is that it is unmanned and untethered–it is able to go anywhere in the ocean and work for as long as it is needed.

Thursday afternoon we took the T (Boston's underground transit) to Mass General Hospital, one of the largest and most important medical research hospitals in the country (14,000 employees!). Our host, George Chen, took us behind the scene to see the proton knife. This experimental tumor killer uses a proton beam to destroy cancer cells by damaging their DNA or producing a flood of free radicals that do the job. The heart of the knife is a modest cyclotron connected to a mammoth beam-aiming system, all of which weighs in at some untold number of tons. All this technology is designed to deliver a high dose of energy at a precise location without any damage at all to surrounding tissue. A considerable breakthrough.

Friday we wrapped up the course and parted company, somewhat brainier and quite a bit more sensitive to the tools used to study our amazing our brain and senses.