This is a guest post from Elizabeth Kirkham, a PhD researcher in the Developmental Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Sheffield.

I study Psychology. I can’t read your mind or tell you anything about Freud, but I do know that you’re not left brained. You’re not right brained either. The idea that we can be left or right brained is a myth. And the common refrain that we only use 10% of our brains? Also a myth (we use 100%). Clearly, Psychology as an academic discipline is still widely misunderstood. The impact of this is best illustrated in an annual mass realisation which takes place in lecture theatres across the UK: “This isn’t what I signed up for! …is it?” The reality is that Psychology spans a multitude of topics, including the biology of neurons, the impact of brain injury and the behaviour of animals. But if we want people to know this, we need to go out and tell them…

The Psychology department here at the University of Sheffield has set up a number of initiatives to inform and educate people about what Psychology is (and what it is not). During the course of my PhD I have taken part in two such initiatives. The first of these, ‘Your Complex Cauliflower’, is an outreach programme which aims to teach high school students about the brain and its functions. In my (admittedly biased) opinion, the brain is the most fascinating organ in the body, yet I don’t remember learning anything about it in my own high school science lessons.

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As part of the Complex Cauliflower sessions we used a portable EEG headset. EEG is a form of brain imaging which records the tiny electrical signals that are produced by neurons in the brain. In research, we typically record EEG data whilst an individual is engaged in a task, then analyse the brain processes involved afterwards. By contrast, the portable EEG set that we used for the lessons comes with software designed to be used primarily in real time. One application, for example, produces a virtual cartoon whose facial expressions mirror those of the person wearing the EEG headset. The headset allowed us to give the students a practical and memorable experience of psychological research techniques, while the accompanying software kept them engaged. Indeed many of the students viewed this demonstration as the highlight of the lesson.

I also took part in was a lesson about how we learn, created for Sheffield’s Festival of Science and Engineering. The session was led by Dr Yael Benn, with assistance from the PhD students in Dr Liat Levita’s Developmental Affective Neuroscience lab (Philppa Howsley, Isobel Williams and myself). Each of us focussed on one aspect of the learning process, and gave the students an activity which demonstrated the concepts we were addressing.

Outreach activities are a great way to teach aspiring students more about what Psychology involves. We shed light on a discipline that is frequently misrepresented in the media and on the TV. In turn, I learnt more about outreach and how to engage with the potential psychologists of the future. I’ll end with a few of the things I took away from the experience:

  • Just like big experiments, mini experiments don’t always generate the results you expect. One group of children managed to produce results that went against one of the strongest psychological findings of the last century (like any good scientist, I suspect this was due to methodological issues).
  • Lessons can never be too interactive. Having spent the majority of the last decade in a university setting, I had forgotten quite how different the teaching is at a school level. Interactive, practical activities have a bigger impact than lecture style information.
  • And finally, children’s questions about science are inevitably more entertaining than academics’ questions about science: one student asked me if I could use brain imaging to establish whether someone needed a wee. If that doesn’t encourage more academics to engage with outreach, I don’t know what will.

The Complex Cauliflower sessions were set up by Dr Megan Freeth. The materials used in the session were created by Leandra Howarden. The sessions were run by a team of people from the Department of Psychology, with different people leading different sessions. This team included: Abby Dickinson, Stephanie Dunn, Rosie Gomez, Chloe Lane, Philippa Howsley and myself (Elizabeth Kirkham). To find out more about these sessions see the case study here.