Support the Brain on Wheels!

Jun 08 2013 Published by under Activism

Sometimes, in order to do new and exciting type of science outreach, you have to think outside the box. Or, perhaps, outside the building. Why bring people to the brain, when you can bring the brain to the people?

The brain child (you see what I did there) of graduating senior Tyler Alterman, the Think Tank is a cognitive science lab on wheels. It will go to schools and museums, letting teachers and students plan and conduct their own experiments. The team of the Think Tank will also be conducting some experiments of their own (all with IRB approval).

Below, Tyler was nice enough to answer some questions for me about the project!

1. What gave you the idea to make a mobile cognitive science lab?

Rather than a what, a who: Brooklyn-based artist, Kim Holleman. One day I stumbled across an NY Times article on Kim's "Trailer Park," which was--rather than trailers in a park--a park in a trailer. The vehicular nature of Trailer Park allowed Kim to do something special: she was able to bring relaxtion to a population with few opportunities for relaxation (i.e., we, the coffee-chugging NYC dwellers). It struck me that a similar model could work for teaching scientific thinking to populations with few opportunities to engage STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).

And so, I wrote up a plan to convert a bread truck into a lab-on-wheels with a glowing, pink brain on top. It was a no brainer, really. Or, rather, a brainer.

2. Why did you pick cognitive science to go mobile?

Psychology and neuroscience are perfect tools for teaching the scientific process. As humans, we are fascinated by humans. Sadly, cognitive science is not often offered in schools. Happily, The Think Tank will bring it to them.

3. What kinds of studies have you/will you be conducting in the lab? Will they be published? If so, do you have IRB approval for this sort of thing?

I'll be conducting relatively few of my stationary lab's studies in the mobile lab. Rather, my team hopes to copycat perception researcher, Beau Lotto. In 2010, Beau published a set of experiments on bee perception in the journal Biology Letters. The paper begins "Once upon a time..." and it sports diagrams colored in with crayons. Beau was not regressing; he had teamed up with twenty-five 8-10 year olds to create genuinely original scientific work. The kids generated novel hypotheses, designed studies, collected data, and wrote up their results--just like real scientists.

The Think Tank will collaborate with students and their teachers to do exactly this. Kids will plan their own experiments in the classroom and carry them out aboard The Think Tank with real human participants. And yes, importantly, we'll be teaching the ethics of human subjects research and an IRB will be written for each set of studies we run.

4. How did you get funding for the Think Tank? Where will the Think Tank be going in its travels?

I used my and Darwin's birthday (February 12th) as an excuse to launch a crowdfunding campaign with a whiz-bang video. Now we're up to $32K!

Since we'll need to make it to $50K to cover a year of operation, we throwing a fundraiser called BrainBash on June 18th, with an entertainment line-up that gives me goosebumps.

After BrainBash, The Think Tank will align with one of the universities from which we're currently reviewing offers. Then, after an local test-bed period to see whether our model works, we'll hope to take the vehicle on a few cross-country road-trips.

5. How does the Think Tank specifically go about closing the race and gender gap in STEM? How does it address the problems?

The gender and race gap in STEM has many roots, but The The Think will tackle two of the big ones. Target problem one is a lack of role models. This lack of role models can lead to a well-known phenomenon called stereotype threat, which has pernicious effects on academic achievement.

Thus, a central goal of The Think Tank will be to create role models from STEM underrepresented groups. Once we settle on a university partner, The Think Tank will establish a pipeline, linking the students we reach to research assistantships in the labs of practicing cognitive scientists. Our focus is on depth rather than breadth. The Think Tank has the potential to reach thousands of students, but I'd satisfied if I inspired just one student to become the next Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Jill Bolte Taylor.

Problem two applies more to the race gap than the gender gap: Many young blacks and Latinos live in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods that lack access to academic resources. The beauty of a mobile lab is that you can literally drive enrichment opportunities to the places that lack them.

6. Will the Think Tank be your job? If not, where are you going during/after Think Tank?

Yes! Directing The Think Tank and making it sustainable will be my day and night job. My twilight hours job will continue to be that of a researcher in the stationary lab of cognitive scientist, opera singer, and all-around amazing guy, Daniel Casasanto.

As you can tell, the Think Tank could be a cool mission (and well, it IS a van with a big pink brain on top of it), and there is still time to help it happen. The Think Tank needs another $20,000, and will be holding a Gala on June 18th, between Central Park and Lincoln Center, at the Macaulay Honors College of CUNY, 35 West 67th Street. There will be brain-controlled games, goods, films, and the nerdy sci band THE AMYGDALOIDS (someday I want to see those guys in concert).

And the best part? Tickets are discounted if you're a Scicurious fan!!!! The usual price to attend the gala (the price is what they are hoping to use to raise the last $20,000 to make the project happen) is $108, but for friends of will be $30. Seriously. Enter the promo code "ImSciCurious" toward the bottom of, and you get a discounted price to the bash!!! I'm so jealous, I wish I could go!!!

So head over, and get your tickets! But make sure to HURRY! The ticket offerings end on Monday night! Go and get a ticket, and see the Amygdaloids, and send me loads of tweets of how great it is so I can be jealous! And help raise the money to make the Think Tank happen!

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