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Neural Networking: Professor’s Brain Expertise Making a Difference at KCAD and Beyond

Posted March 20, 2017 in FacultyArt EducationArt History

Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) Art Education Associate Professor Donna St. John is far from alone in her belief that the key to innovation in education lies in a deeper understanding of how the human brain learns.

For more than half of the 27 years she’s spent teaching at the K-12 and college levels, St. John has also been active in the Midwest Brain Institute. The Holland, Mich.-based organization unites scientists, futurists, and teachers in the creation of professional development resources that bring the latest brain research into the classroom. When St. John isn’t busy leveraging her neural expertise in KCAD’s Art Education program, she takes every opportunity to share it with others.

Recently, KCAD Art History Associate Professor Anne Norcross invited St. John to give a presentation on brain function and learning to her son’s Advanced Placement psychology class at Eaton Rapids High School in Eaton Rapids, Mich. Using 20 sheep brains, which are remarkably similar in structure to the human brain, that Norcross purchased from a science education materials supplier and donated to the school, St. John led the students on a hands-on exploration of brain structure and neural processing and how they drive cognitive development.  

Donna St. John at Eaton Rapids High SchoolDonna St. John gives a presentation on brain function and learning to AP psychology students at Eaton Rapids High School (image courtesy of Eaton Rapids High School)

“Something amazing happens when you enable people, especially younger people, to see how their own minds work,” says St. John. “They become very engaged very quickly, and it awakens an intense curiosity that stays with them.”

As students dissected the sheep brains, St. John helped them understand how the two hemispheres of the human brain work in tandem, dispelling the myth that only the right side of the brain is activated during creative functions, while the only the left side is activated during analytical functions. In reality, the hemispheres work together on both creative and analytical tasks: the left hemisphere focuses on details, while the right hemisphere focuses on the overarching “bigger picture” of the task at hand.

“To have the students hold the brain and then gently pull the two hemispheres apart, they see this thin line of tissue called the corpus callosum, 250 million neurons connecting the two hemispheres and enabling their complex communication – that’s a powerful visual,” says St. John.

Sheep brain at Eaton Rapids High SchoolSt. John had the students explore the architecture of the human brain by dissecting sheep brains, which are remarkably similar in structure. (image courtesy of Eaton Rapids High School)

The mechanics of the human brain, and how different people learn in different ways, are the bedrock of the Art Education program. Students develop an acute understanding of how the brain stores, processes, and engages with information. Armed with this knowledge, they then work to design curricula that engage learners on an individual level, accounting for multiple intelligences and different mind styles and creating opportunities for students to engage with educational experiences in more lasting, positive ways. In this way, St. John and her colleagues empower Art Education graduates to not just be effective teachers, but to be change agents who can drive innovation in education on a systemic level.  

Eaton Rapids High School students Mathieu Norcross (left) and Ryan Freemire (right) dissect their sheep brains (credit: Anne Norcross) 

“We teach our students how to create educational environments that cultivate better students and better human beings, and brain research is essential to our efforts,” says St. John. “If we aseducators continue to do what we’ve done in the past, then we will fail ourselves and future generations. But if my colleagues and I can prepare KCAD students to drive change that affects thousands of children in their lifetime, that makes all of our effort worth the while.”

While neural research is an incredible resource in the Art Education program, St. John knows that engaging her own students is not enough. Behind her presentation to the Eaton Rapids students, and all of her outreach efforts for that matter, lies a desire to mainstream this vast and ever-evolving area of knowledge in ways that benefit anyone and everyone.

“We’ve spent billions of dollars on brain research, but where is that information going? We have to be more intentional and share that information with people that can utilize it the most: educators,” she says. “We have to recognize the power of teaming, the power of dialogue, and I believe KCAD can lead the way in education design that responds meaningfully to this research.” 

See more of Donna St. John’s work at donnafstjohn.com.

Learn more about KCAD’s Art Education program at kcad.edu/arteducation.

Learn more about KCAD’s Art History program at kcad.edu/arthistory