Tyler Alterman says that as a kid, he was naturally interested in science. But his enthusiasm waned as he slogged through classes more focused on memorization and standardized testing than hands-on experimentation.
His interests turned to the arts and graphic design until he rediscovered science as a student working in the lab of psychologist Daniel Casasanto, PhD, while at the City University of New York’s Macaulay Honors College. Casasanto researches how linguistic, cultural, and bodily experiences shape the mind and brain, and Alterman said this provided the perfect setting to combine his interests.
“I fell back in love with science by way of two cognitive science disciplines, neuroscience and psychology,” he said. “These two disciplines were asking the same questions I was asking myself as a practicing graphic designer while attending college in New York: What moves people to action?”
These questions led to a senior thesis project that was part graphic design installation and part science experiment: the Think Tank, a neuroscience lab on wheels to engage kids and inspire them to careers in science.
Casasanto moved to the University of Chicago earlier this year to head the Experience and Cognition Lab in the Department of Psychology, and Alterman followed to work on the Think Tank full-time as its Operations Director. Now the two of them are ready to hit the streets to build excitement around science in Chicago schools and communities.The Think Tank program consists of three parts. The first is the original idea for a mobile neuroscience lab. Think of it as a food truck for geeks: a tricked out delivery van with a glowing brain on top that drives around to community fairs, farmers markets and parks and engage the public with science.
Once it’s built, the lab will include hands-on, tangible experiences to bring science to life, like brainwave-reading headsets that let you create music or light up the brain atop the truck with your thoughts. The truck will be staffed by working scientists who can answer questions about what they do, what happens in their labs and why they wanted to study science.
For the second part of the project, Alterman and Casasanto are developing a multi-week science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curriculum for schools, targeted to black, Latino and female students who are underrepresented in STEM fields.
The pilot for this phase of the project will be launched in the UChicago Charter School, with courses and interactive demos led by undergrads trained as “Brainiacs,” or science communicators. The goal of the program is to not only teach kids about science, but also create awareness of career opportunities in STEM fields, to help them start thinking about becoming a scientist someday.
The third phase of the project is the Think Tank Fellows program, which will invite high school students from the in-school program to participate in summer research apprenticeships in University of Chicago labs. The fellowship program will give the students a chance to interact with PhD mentors and visiting scholars who can provide role models for female and minority students who want to pursue scientific careers. The program will provide both hands-on research experience and coaching on how to apply to university science programs.
Once the truck is rolling, Alterman and Casasanto want to partner with museums and scientific organizations around the city. Alterman said he hopes the Think Tank can create scientists out of kids who otherwise wouldn’t consider the field, either because of systemic barriers or lack of role models. He thinks neuroscience is the perfect way to engage people by thinking about who they are and how they perceive the world around them.
“Neuroscience is a gateway drug for many a person who never realized they were interested in science,” he said. “I’m not a unique case: people are naturally interested in people, and neuroscience is, by and large, the science of people–of how a compact bundle of cells forms the basis for who we are.”