Rachel DeVille looked the part of a mad scientist Tuesday as she donned goggles as part of a science camp at Woodley Hills Elementary.
Students and recent graduates from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology are hosting science camps at the Alexandria school this week, using experiments and activities to help students learn to love science.
Goggles firmly in place, the 12-year-old softball player hitched up her sleeves, grabbed a rubber ball and aimed a perfect pitch at a target across the room. But the ball sailed wide left.
So did the next one. And the one after that.
The goggles DeVille wore were prism goggles, distorting her vision and causing her brain to misjudge her aim. Finally, five throws later, a ball found its target as DeVille’s brain adjusted to its new view, and her fellow campers let out a cheer.
With that simple experiment, students received a real-life display of the concept of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to adjust itself to new situations.
The experiment took place as part of the NeuroInspire camp, which teaches principles of neuroscience to students. An AeroInspire camp, focused on aerodynamics, is running at the same time.
As evidenced by the camps’ names, the programs aim not only to teach the science concepts but to inspire a passion for them.
“Even though we’re at a school, we really want to get away from the feel of a classroom,” NeuroInspire co-founder Nathan Kodama said. “We want to bring out the curiosity and the joy of science.”
Kodama and three other Thomas Jefferson students started NeuroInspire in spring 2013 with the goal of bringing science programs to county schools with high levels of poverty in student population.
At Woodley Hills, 70 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals.
“A lot of our kids don’t have as many opportunities for this type of enrichment,” said Mary Kate DeRose, a reading specialist at the school. “This allows them to really broaden their horizons.”
DeRose helped bring the program to Woodley Hills for a camp last summer. NeuroInspire also held programs at Glen Forest Elementary and Glasgow Middle School during the 2013-14 school year.
Kodama, 19, worked with his fellow founders to expand the program even while he was away for freshman year at Case Western Reserve University, where he studies biophysics. The program this year had 18 student instructors from all grades at Thomas Jefferson, and this summer added AeroInspire to the program slate.
The programs are offered for free to students. NeuroInspire works with the school administration to get the word out to families through flyers as well as the school’s website and social media accounts.
The summer camp is running for one week, four hours each day, 8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. During school year, the programs ran Friday afternoon sessions for six weeks in a row.
At Woodley Hills this week, 11 students are participating in NeuroInspire led by three Thomas Jefferson student instructors. Four students are participating in AeroInspire led by one instructor.
While students in NeuroInspire construct brain caps showing the brain anatomy, Nikhil Bhaip, a rising senior at Thomas Jefferson and leader of the AeroInspire camp, led a conversation on rocket thrust that bounced from breaking the sound barrier to the possibility of time travel.
“We encourage questions,” Bhaip said. “We want to go where the kids want to learn.”
Kodama split himself between the two camp classrooms, keeping everything running smoothly.
And Kodama does not just invest his time. Many of the supplies for the different experiments were paid for by Kodama himself, from prism goggles to sheep brains for dissection.
Kodama estimates that he has spent more than $5,000 on the program since it started. This year he plans to work toward a more sustainable model. But until he finds one, he plans to keep going.
“But when I see that enthusiasm, that moment when it clicks for kids, when you see those opportunities, it’s hard to not invest,” Kodama said. “It takes so much to get there, but seeing those dreams come to fruition is incredible.”