BrainReach is a program that offers fun ways to learn about science

When a Grade 4 student explained to her family the difference between a stroke and a heart attack following her uncle’s health crisis, Cindy Hovington felt confident that she and her fellow graduate students were making a difference in classrooms around Montreal.

For the past two years, Hovington has been a class presenter and program coordinator for BrainReach, a McGill University program in which graduate neuroscience students teach school children about the brain.

For Hovington, the teaching experience changed the trajectory of her career and inspired her to start a business. While her doctoral research was about psychosis, things began to shift after she became a BrainReach volunteer.

“I realized how passionate I was about teaching,” she said. “Not so much about standing in front of a class, but in discovering how I could help students learn better by working on their cognitive skills.”

That led her to explore educational neuroscience, a relatively new interdisciplinary field that seeks to bridge the gap between the new research of neuroscientists and its application in education. “It combines what we know about how the brain learns with teaching and learning in the classroom,” she explains. “This field puts the researcher in the classroom and the teacher in the research lab.”

Danielle Gagnon, who teaches science to Grade 4 students at Ecole St. Remi in Beaconsfield, says she has been happy with Hovington’s monthly workshops and that they give children a deeper understanding of the brain than they would otherwise get in their human anatomy curriculum. “This is a huge plus for me, and it will give the kids an extraordinary experience,” Gagnon says.

Hovington brings in materials that give the students hands-on learning, such as a cow and mouse brain as well as a high-powered microscope. Gagnon says it has helped the students become interested in science and even to consider it as a career choice.

“She knew right away how to get the students’ attention and keep it,” Gagnon says. “She’s friendly – but she is very good with discipline.”

The Curious Neuron is born

Hovington also worked last fall with Saturday Science in Westmount, which offers classes for children aged 3 to 9. The parents of the youngest participants were so impressed with how she was getting the children to play and use their imaginations that many began asking her if she did private sessions. She was also getting requests for advice from her own friends, who had started families.

So she decided to create The Curious Neuron, a side business that combines fun science activities with intuitive ways to help children up to the age of 5 develop critical cognitive skills, such as thinking, planning, memory and language.

“It’s not just that I’m a teacher who gets their kids to learn, but as a neuroscientist I can assess what’s going on, and give parents some ideas for activities to try if a child is having a bit of trouble in a certain area.”

She gives the example of a 3-year-old who wasn’t learning how to hold a crayon correctly. His mother’s way of trying to teach him was to hold his hand around the crayon the correct way, but he’d go back to the way he felt comfortable as soon as he could. Hovington cut a hole in the top of a small box and placed a small ball in it, and then asked him to take the ball out with his fingers. Practicing that action will help him make new neural connections and build the fine motor skills he needs to eventually hold the crayon the right way.

Meanwhile, Hovington is pursuing post-doctoral studies. She starts the New Year with a short fellowship at McGill and will then be working on a research project that bridges the gap between learning and the brain. Hovington is a perfect example of what happens when you expand your mind — your opportunities in life grow.

For more information about Curious Neuron, visit cindyhovington.ca. For more information about BrainReach, visit mcgill.ca/ipn/brainreach