Inspiring Young Students Through STEM

by Rebekah Bruckner

Azusa Middle School students flood the cafeteria ready for exciting, hands-on experiments, a rare occurrence in their regular science classes. They are about to engage in a program that will drastically change their ideas about the brain, encourage them to make positive, healthy decisions, and spark their interest in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Azusa Pacific University launched the first Brain Fair in 2012, coinciding with international Brain Awareness Week, a program spanning more than 80 countries that encourages community outreach to teach K-12 students about brain health and safety. Since its inception, APU’s Brain Fair has educated more than 3,500 students, including 1,000 students this year, between the four middle schools in the Azusa Unified School District.

“I love to see the kids’ faces light up when they understand something about science for the first time,” said Skyla Herod, Ph.D., director of the Brain Fair and associate professor in the Department of Biology and Chemistry. Her purpose for this program is four-fold: teach students about the brain in an interactive way, show the negative effects of drugs and alcohol on the brain, promote helmet safety through an awareness of the dangers of head injuries, and finally, provide these seventh graders with role models who encourage them to pursue a college degree, possibly even one in STEM.

Now, after five years of hosting the Brain Fair, Herod sees an enduring benefit for her neurobiology students who help run the program and for the students in the Azusa community. Throughout the semester, Herod said she witnesses her students grow exponentially. Often, they enter BIOL 326 somewhat apprehensive, but as they interact with the middle school students they gain confidence. “APU students who take this course develop a passion for educational outreach and a heart for helping the underprivileged. Some of my students who never thought they would enjoy teaching realize that it is something that God has gifted and called them to do,” said Herod.

“Participating in the Brain Fair taught me how to serve in accordance with my gifts," said BIOL 326 student George Alexander. "This class gave me the platform to model Christ and be a role model to these students."

As for the seventh grade students of Azusa, Herod sees incredible shifts in their thinking. “We aren’t here to tell them, ‘Just say no. Don’t do drugs.’ We are here to show them why they shouldn’t, in a way that actually connects,” Herod said. She points to frequent interactions with middle schoolers who approach her after wearing goggles that simulate the effects on the brain when intoxicated. Their common response to her is, “ I am never drinking alcohol.”

Employment in STEM related occupations is projected to grow to more than 9 million jobs between 2012 and 2022. Herod and her neurobiology students hope to inspire the next generation of scientists, doctors, and engineers, right in their own backyard. “I have a heart for the students in Azusa,” said Herod. “We want to make a difference and lead them toward a bright future.”

View Skyla Herod's TEDx Talk.

Rebekah Bruckner '18 is a public relations intern in the Office of University Relations. She is a English major and a graphic design minor.