- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 7, 2003

The 3-pound mass residing in the skull of all humans controls what they can do, how they act and what they know. Despite its complexity, the amazing brain often is taken for granted — how many times do we actually think about breathing, blinking or digesting?

Some educators decided to enlighten students on the virtues of the brain and its associated neurological system by traveling around the country to schools and museums while offering an information-packed, multimedia cyber-stop.

Brains Rule!

Site address: www.brainsrule.com

Creator: The Brains Rule! Neuroscience Exposition project receives funding through the National Institute on Drug Abuse (part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda). It originally was awarded in 1998 to Creighton University but recently was relocated to the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Creator quotable: “Brainsrule.com was conceived as a place on the Internet to support the goals of the Brains Rule! Neuroscience Expositions project. The site is a place for kids to go to play interactive games to learn the basics about neuroscience and the brain. It also provides teachers with lesson plans for conducting hands-on science activities in the classroom, plus the site is designed to support the coordination of the Neuroscience Expositions by providing online participation for neuroscientists and program partners,” says Dr. Cynthia Phelps of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, co-creator of Brains Rule!

Word from the Webwise: Through the use of sound effects, illustrations, roll-over effects, animation and quizzes, the site hopes to stimulate middle schoolers’ brains and teach them a bit about neuroscience.

The opening page dazzles as a multicolored brain pops into place with circles appearing as overlays to define the site’s five major sections. The most productive of the sections for students will be found within Games, which mixes four online learning activities with a bit of arcade-style action and plenty of boinging and fireworks noises.

After entering the Games page and learning about the parts of the brain from an illustration on the right side of the screen, I started with Neuron Explosion. Through a cartoon presentation, a neuron is shown broken down into seven main parts, exploring the likes of mitochondria, dendrites and rough endoplasmic reticulum, followed by a true/false quiz. Correct answers allow the participant to reconstruct the complicated cell by dragging parts over a template.

Next, more simulation than game, Brain Attack goes through 16 elements that exactly explain the process of a stroke, all shown in animated screens. The Brain-o-Coaster follows and gives players the chance to learn how the brain develops at the fetal level as visitors select from four positions on the neural plate, pick a food that might stimulate healthy neural system growth and learn what the portion of the plate they selected becomes in the adult brain.

The best of the bunch, Neuron Navigator, challenges players to maneuver a vehicle through the body and become a certified Neuron Growth Engineer while exploring the complicated process of neural development. Drivers control a race car, tow truck or taxi as they attempt to acquire more growth fuel by answering multiple-choice questions and using a handy map to reach their final destination. Almost all concepts taught throughout the site are incorporated into the questions.

Other sections worth a child’s look include Meet a Brain Whiz, which introduces youngsters to four neuroscientists through text-based interviews; a way to get a free T-shirt by offering an opinion about the site; and photos from past Brains Rule! expositions.

Ease of use: This site really wreaked havoc with my Macintosh but performed flawlessly on a PC. The Flash plug-in is required to enjoy all of the games, and once this relatively new site adds more content — neither the Ask the Brain Whiz section nor Tell a Friend About Brains Rule! was available — it will be a great place to hang out.

Don’t miss: After my Macintosh problems, I enjoyed the Zen-like challenge “Help Smiley Get Rid of Some Stressors,” which had me click on activities that do not induce stress to watch a happy face get happier.

Family activity: Home-schoolers and families looking for a project will appreciate the Teachers area and its four ideas to enjoy away from the computer. The Mind and Muscle Maze sounds like the most fun and involves using 250 feet of PVC to construct a labyrinth to demonstrate developing nerve pathways used to reach muscles.

Cyber-sitter synopsis: Although lacking in content, Brains Rule! still has plenty of potential but probably will keep youngsters entertained for less than an hour in its current state.

Overall grade: B

Remember: The information on the Internet is constantly changing. Please verify the advice on the sites before you act to be sure it’s accurate and updated. Health sites, for example, should be discussed with your own physician.

Have a cool site for the family? Write to Joseph Szadkowski at Webwise, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send an e-mail message (jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com).

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