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Making the cut: South Middle students employ sheep brains to explore human maladies

Cutting a sheep brain in two was a lot easier than Junuh Hunt thought it would be.

“It’s got a little give,” the South Middle School seventh-grader said Thursday morning, as he brought the scalpel straight down the organ’s center.

“Now we just have to find the tumor.”

The sheep brains were standing in for the human version on this morning in Lois Campbell’s science classroom at South.

Campbell, who is known by her students as “Dr. C” — she has a Ph.D. in science education from Purdue — was leading the class through a learning unit on neurology that takes “hands-on” to new clinical levels.

“Sheep brains pretty much mimic our brains in that a lot of the structures are the same,” she said.

The lesson plan and the organic material for dissection purposes came courtesy of Project Lead the Way, a national, nonprofit outreach group built on STEM — the science, technology, engineering and math pursuits that are at the head of the class in most of America’s school districts these days.

In Campbell’s class, 12 students had brains on the brain, as it were.

The students were given mock case studies of “patients” presenting with a variety of symptoms, neurological and otherwise.

One had tingling and weakness in his left arm and leg and was having trouble moving his fingers.

Another had vision problems that went in and out.

Perhaps the most serious of the mock cases was the depiction of a 7-year-old girl who suddenly stopped sleeping and was experiencing alarming weight loss, on top of being uncharacteristically jittery and hyperactive.

Because the brain is both a storehouse and a power plant, Campbell’s students had to be medical detectives and work, as real doctors do, on the clinical process of elimination.

“This is about research and collaboration,” the teacher said.

“It’s about knowing the components of the brain, and deciding which treatment course to take,” she continued.

“Sometimes, you can’t do surgery because of where the tumor is located. Sometimes chemo is just going to be too rough on the patient.”

A purplish dye was a stand-in for the “tumors” in the specimens — and the lesson plan also included mock-MRI reports, which were presented after students made their initial diagnoses.

That was so they could see if they were correct in their medical assumptions.

“We definitely have to do radiation,” Gyonah Riggleman said, as she and her classmates regarded the aforementioned mock study of the little girl with the hyperactivity and weight loss.

A tumor near the hypothalamus was the culprit. From its post in the center of the brain, the hypothalamus governs all the body’s actions and reactions.

If you’re too hot, the hypothalamus tells you to sweat. If you’re too cold, it calls the cerebral command to shiver, which is the body’s way of generating warmth.

“There’s no way we could do surgery,” Gyonah said. “She’d die. We’ll shrink the tumor. She’s still young.”

Serious role-playing it was. Except, when it wasn’t.

Ashton Toler looked up from the neatly dissected sections of sheep brain at his table.

“You know,” he said, “this looks a lot like my grandfather’s Thanksgiving turkey.”

“Ewwww,” came the collective groan from the class.

Campbell rolled her eyes and shook her head.

“Well,” the teacher said, “it is 7th grade.”

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