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Brain Bee success leads to finding tribe

Brain Bee success leads to finding tribe

A sense of belonging and identity as a scientist are some of the benefits of success in the annual Brain Bee Challenge, according to new research from the University of Auckland.

One of the study participants summed this up in the comment: “It was like I found my tribe.”

Brain Bee Challenge is a quiz-based international neuroscience outreach for high school students. In New Zealand, a North Island regional and South Island regional competition is run mid-year with the two winners going to the Australasian competition to decide a New Zealand and Australian winner.

The North Island competition hosted by the Centre for Brain Research is a day-long contest where about 200 participants from 50 schools also get to visit a laboratory and meet neuroscientists.

The research was led by neuroscientist Professor Louise Nicholson from the University’s Centre for Brain Research and Associate Professor Mark Barrow, the Associate Dean (Academic) for the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences with Dr Megan Dowie, a past student and post-doctoral fellow from the Centre for Brain Research.

It was published recently in The Neuroscientist and coincides with the 2015 International Brain Bee Challenge held in Cairns where New Zealand representative (and winner of the NZ Challenge) Nicholas Kondal from Massey High School in West Auckland, achieved success. He earned a very creditable fourth placing against international competition and was first in the brain anatomy section of the competition.

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“In our research, we looked at how successful involvement in the Brain Bee Challenge influenced educational choices,” says Professor Nicholson.

They interviewed seven past winners of the Auckland regional Brain Bee Challenge, held annually at the University of Auckland’s medical campus in Grafton. These students went on to be the national Brain Bee winners and attended the International Brain Bee competition.

“Engaging young people with science is essential to ensuring a scientifically literate society,” Professor Nicholson says. “It’s also important to enable access to a variety of sciences during adolescence, when individuals are making decisions about their future educational and career paths.”

“We interviewed seven past winners, five male and two female, who took part in the northern competition between 2007 and 2013,” says Professor Nicholson. “We wanted to determine what influence this exposure to the scientific research environment had on the highest achievers’ later choices in education, their career expectations, and their perspectives toward science.”

The themes identified highlighted the value of research institution-led outreach activities that extend high achievers beyond the school curriculum. The winners were exposed to not only the overseas competition, but also an international conference that was host to the international competition. Here they met top scientists and heard research presentations.

“There were multiple benefits at a personal level and by taking part at that level, they were exposed to the international scientific community and other bright students,” says Professor Nicholson. “The recognition by peers is integral to them developing their scientific identity, and we found that what was most important to them was the experience integral to developing a sense of self.”

“That strong sense of belonging and feeling like a scientist, that came through in the study was a surprise to me,” she says. “They are all very bright and able students and because of that, they can sometimes be marginalised at college. This experience showed them that there are others with a love of science and book learning, and they realised they were not alone.”

All the winners interviewed already had an interest in science before they took part in the Brain Bee, and either a parent or teacher had suggested they take part. Many had taken part because they were competitive and wanted to try something new.

In the study, four themes involved in participation in the Brain Bee Challenge emerged from the data;

• self-directed learning – “That chance to try and wrap your head around difficult concepts”.

• Meeting like-minded individuals and joining a community – “It was like I had found my tribe”.

• The steering influence – “I guess it steered me more than convinced me [towards science]”.

• Increased confidence – “It kind of gave me the courage to apply for other things”.

“By increasing these high achievers’ awareness of research processes early in their academic journeys, the Brain Bee Challenge helps develop their sense of identity,” says Associate Professor Mark Barrow. “It does this by exposing them to the discourses, habits and workings of scientists by expanding their experiences beyond school science. This paves the way to a fuller participation in the future.”

“They already aspired to advanced education, but had not decided what degree they will take,” he says. “This study suggests that enabling personal development and stimulating the development of a science identity encourages these young students to advance their science education beyond school.”


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