For its innovative approach and commitment to service, the UCLA Volunteer Center Fellows award Interaxon the Bruin Heroes Award for Fall 2011. Founded in 2006, Interaxon is a student organization that provides short interactive seminars about neuroscience to local underprivileged schools, particularly in the Compton area. According to Co-President and fourth year Neuroscience major Michael Bonitati, Interaxon volunteers educate students from kindergarten to high school with the aim of fostering an interest in science and in higher education.
The schools that Interaxon targets are those that have a high percentage of low-income families and that are scoring below the state average in science and mathematics. Co-president and fourth year Psychobiology major Roshan Burns recounts a time when Interaxon was at a continuation high school in Compton- “A lot of kids had been in juvie, were back in high school, and we didn’t get enthusiasm from everyone, but then you notice the kids who do care, talking to us about what it’s like to go to UCLA, what they need to do to get in. One student said, ‘I’m really interested in zoology’ and was asking us about animal brains and how they’re different.’”
“We want these students who are incredibly bright to have this opportunity to see science in its best light,” Burns said. To achieve this goal, Interaxon implements a variety of activities to engage its students and to educate about several different neuroscience topics. Students create a helmet out of cups and newspaper for their egg “brain” to demonstrate the importance of wearing a helmet, or build a neuron out of pipe cleaners and Cheerios, or learn about the effects that drug use has on the brain. Some presentations include actual human brains that the students have the opportunity to touch.
Interaxon has had a highly positive response from the schools with which it works. “The biggest feedback is, ‘I don’t want my students to forget this, I want this to continue and for them to be excited,” Burns said. Some teachers are even re-organizing their own curriculum around the group’s presentations. Burns is creating an activity book with information and activities that teachers can use to incorporate in their own lesson plans in order to continue the neuroscience education. One school hosted a Science Night designed for an Interaxon visit, and Interaxon worked with a small group of students to prepare for a Science Fair.
Beyond their sites, which occur at least once per week, Interaxon works with other student groups to provide neuroscience education and foster access to higher education. Interaxon has led seminars for service recipients through the Early Academic Outreach Program, Brain Awareness Week, and Promoting Individuality Through the Arts Day, all of which bring youth from disadvantaged communities to the UCLA campus. Since its founding in 2006, Interaxon has grown not only in its level of activity, but also in membership and curriculum. Excitingly, the Interaxon program has served as a model for expansion to USC, UC San Diego, UC Davis, UC Berkeley, Vanderbilt University, and Rutgers University.
Despite extensive expansion, Interaxon remains a “close-knit community,” Bonitati said, citing the common interest that the volunteers have, creating a close bond within the group. “Our members are excited about schools and teaching students about science.”
To learn more about Interaxon or to join the organization, visit the Interaxon Outreach website.