School Notes: June 2018

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UVA neuroscientist Mark Beenhakker shows students a human brain after a presentation at Meriwether Lewis Elementary. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Brain Trust

Meriwether Lewis Elementary fifth-graders were treated to a close look at the human brain in a recent presentation by U.Va. neuroscientists Mark Beenhakker and Katie Salvati. The students learned about the different parts of the brain and how each functions, including odd facts such as that the area controlling vision is actually located at the back of the skull. The scientists also described their research, particularly its limitations.

“There is still so much we don’t know about how the brain works,” said Beenhakker. “Sometimes we learn the most from people who have had parts of their brains removed, so we can tell which functions are missing, like memory or motor function or logical processing.” The two presenters told stories such as the famous 1953 tale of “patient H. M.,” a man whose hippocampus was removed and thereafter lost his short-term memory, though his long-term memory remained intact, a case which advanced scientists’ understanding of memory.  

Fifth-graders at Meriwether Lewis Elementary were able to examine a real human brain after a presentation by UVA neuroscientists. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Beenhakker and Salvati study childhood absence epilepsy, in which seizures cause episodes of staring where the child is not aware or responsive. Though medical treatments have been developed as a result of the research, progress is still slow. “We conduct our research on mice and rats,” said Salvati, currently a Ph.D. student, “but we can’t be sure that mice brains and human brains work the same way.”

The students asked “what if” questions about how the brain works, with a special focus on dreaming, another mystifying area for researchers. “Why do we dream what we do?” asked one girl.  “How does my brain come up with that stuff?” Several students had read up on brains and knew about the importance of rest on the ability of the brain to organize and retain what it had recently experienced.

When it came time to actually pass around real human brains and spinal cords, most of the students were eager to take a look. “It’s squishy!” they yelled. “It’s wrinkled!” The scientists stressed the brain’s vulnerability to injury, and advised that all parts of the brain need to be protected. “So wear a helmet when you bike or ski or play sports or skateboard,” said Beenhakker. “Eat healthy food, and get plenty of sleep. Take care of your brain.”

Field of Streams

Field School students contribute to their local environment in a tangible way with an annual science project that culminates in a trout release into the North Fork Moormans River. “We got them as eggs and watched them grow in an aquarium,” said seventh-grader Ari. “After a couple of months, now they are about three inches long.” In class, the students review the basic anatomy and life cycle of trout, and even make drawings of them focusing on their markings in art class. Then comes the best part—a field trip for the whole school to the river above Sugar Hollow Dam.

Field School science teacher Maureen Perriello and rising eighth-grade student Addison at the North Fork Moormans on their school-wide field trip to release over fifty young trout into the river. Photo: Lisa Martin.

“We tie it in to a bonding trip by camping at Camp Albemarle the night before we do the release,” said science teacher Maureen Perriello. “It was pretty warm, but really fun.” At the river, each boy was given a plastic cup with a baby trout swirling inside, and the students waded in to choose a protected spot for their fish’s new home. The river water was a bit warmer than expected for the time of year, so teachers cautioned students to acclimate their wards slowly to the new temperature to prevent shock.  

James “Chubby” Damron of the Thomas Jefferson chapter of Trout Unlimited was on hand to explain the history and benefits of the project, in which several area schools participate. “The Virginia game department provides the eggs for the school to use, and they are of the same quality as the native brook trout in the river so there is no interference with interbreeding,” he said.  

Field School students acclimate young trout to the water of the North Fork Moormans River prior to releasing them. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Damron described how a major flood in 1995 had devastated the river along that stretch, uprooting trees and washing boulders downstream, and decimating the trout habitat.  “With no tree cover to keep cool, and no place to hide in the river, the trout population was nonexistent for several years,” he said. “This program is important to help the stream rebuild the population. Field School alone has probably contributed close to 500 fish here over the years.”

After the release, the students sprawled on rocks and splashed in the water, enjoying the river on a beautiful spring day. Brook trout live for about four years in the type of habitat provided by the North Fork Moormans, and will eventually grow to between 8 and 12 inches. “Who knows, these boys may even catch one someday,” said Damron.

Claim to Fame

WAHS is home to a new Western Albemarle Fine Arts Hall of Fame, designed to highlight school community members who have contributed to the fine arts learning experience, either within the high school or beyond.  “We are thrilled to have gotten this started,” said Kelly Burnette, one of the WAHS Fine Arts staff who helped coordinate the awards ceremony. “We hope that as people see and appreciate the Hall of Fame, it will continue to build in future years.”

Four inaugural inductees were honored at a ceremony in the cafeteria May 2, followed by senior art show recognitions and honor society inductions. This year’s inductees were:

Western Albemarle Fine Arts Hall of Fame inaugural inductees (left to right): Tavia Fromm Brown, Donna Tucker, Steve Layman, and Tim Heltzel, who received a posthumous award on behalf of Eric Betthauser. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Steve Layman, WAHS band director from 1985 to 2008, who grew the small band programs into multiple winning ensembles; Tavia Fromm Brown, a 1994 WAHS graduate who is now a successful metalsmith and leader in the Charlottesville arts community; Donna Tucker, a WAHS Visual Arts teacher from 1977 to 2006 who developed the crafts curriculum to include functional artwork and expanded the reach and appeal of art offerings at the school; and Eric Betthauser, the WAHS choir director from 2009 to 2016 whose talent and enthusiasm inspired many at both the high school and Henley Middle School, where he also taught.  Mr. Betthauser was killed in a tragic car accident in 2016, and his former colleague at Henley, Tim Heltzel, received the posthumous award on his behalf at the ceremony.

Nominations to the Hall of Fame are open to WAHS-related alumni, former staff, administrators, and other community members, and will be accepted at the school by early March of each year.  

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