The Think Tank is a functional neuroscience lab on wheels that brings neuroscience to area K-12 students. The brain child of Assistant Professor of Psychology, Daniel Casasanto, the truck became a reality last year and just this spring unveiled it's grant-funded glowing "lluminoggin" on the roof. The enormous, anatomically correct glowing brain is more than just a pretty organ along for the ride--the brain serves as a teaching tool. Electrical activity generated by students’ thoughts will be processed by an Emotiv brainwave-reading headset to illuminate key brain regions of the Illuminoggin. In this Q&A with the Dean's Office, Casasanto offers some insight into what it took to bring the whole project to life, including the critical support he received from the Research Development team of the Social Sciences Dean's Office.
DEAN'S OFFICE: Think Tank was an idea you started developing before you came to Chicago—can you explain what it took to make it a reality once you were here?
DANIEL CASASANTO: Initially, The Think Tank was conceived of as a conceptual art project. What made me realize that a truck with a giant glowing brain on top could be a "vehicle" for social change was coming to UChicago on a faculty recruiting visit, where I learned about all of the ways the university was already seeking to engage with the community and increase diversity in academia -- and in the sciences, in particular. I felt inspired to contribute to this effort.
I thought that, through neuroscience, we could engage people who might not have thought they were interested in science. Why neuroscience? Because our brains are what make us who we are. Brain science is the study of people, and people are natural interested in people. A mobile neuroscience lab would allow us to export discoveries about the brain beyond the university walls, and to create a two-way street that could lead talented students from diverse backgrounds back to our academic community.
DEAN'S OFFICE: What kind of support did you receive from the Division? The University?
DC: The SSD responded in ways that were critical for the launch of The Think Tank. First, the Dean's Office put me in touch with STEM outreach guru and current Vice President of Education and Experience at Chicago Architecture Foundation, Gabrielle Lyon, AB'94, AM'94 (History), who became our sensei. Second, when we had generated a lot of enthusiasm for our mission but only about half of the funds we needed to get started, the SSD pitched in to help buy the truck -- to put the "tank" in The Think Tank.
Most critical for the success of our first year and a half has been the support of our UChicago student volunteers. The first season of our School Science program in Chicago Pubic School classrooms was made possible through a collaboration with NEURO, the undergraduate neuroscience research and outreach club, with whom we also received a grant from the UChicago Uncommon Fund. This grant sponsored the Brain Bash on the quad that celebrated the completion of The Illuminoggin -- The Think Tank's giant, anatomically correct, glowing brain, and will continue to sponsor collaborations between NEURO and TTT. The students of Psi Chi, the undergraduate psychology honors society have also helped to host Think Tank events, as have members of the Psychology Graduate Student Organization (PGSO). Students are the heart of our brain-science outreach.
DEAN'S OFFICE: What has the process of creating outreach programs been like? What about establishing relationships with the community and/or schools?
DC: I'm grateful that, in our first year of operation, we've had even more invitations than we could accept from organizations around Chicago and nationwide. As our volunteer base grows so does our ability to reach out, and UChicago's Office of Civic Engagement has offered to help us find the events and partnerships that will lead to the most effective dissemination of scientific knowledge into the broader community, and to the greatest increase in the diversity of participation in academia.
To learn more about Think Tank, visit thinktank.uchicago.edu.
To learn more about the Division of the Social Science's support for facutly research and outreach projects, including grant and fundraising assistance, click here.