DMU-based program earns Iowa STEM BEST award

Some 3D brain models printed as part of the NeuroSMART project

If you stop by the anatomy research labs in Ryan Hall, you are likely to hear the soft mechanical movements of a 3D printer that is cranking out a small plastic model of the mammalian brain. This modest machine and what it’s being used for are part of a plan to help students interested in the sciences, including at the high school level, think more like innovators and entrepreneurs.

The man with that plan is Muhammad Spocter, Ph.D., associate professor of anatomy, whose office in Ryan Hall is sprinkled with models of primate and canine brains in a variety of sizes, materials and level of detail. In 2012, he began teaching a neuroanatomy course to students who attend Central Campus, a Des Moines Public Schools facility that offers college-level classes to central Iowa high schoolers. He’s been able to expand the number of students who can take the course thanks to support of the University, Des Moines Public Schools, the Verizon Foundation and Kemin Industries, a global nutritional ingredient manufacturer headquartered in Des Moines.

Since then, the Neuroscience Student Mentoring and Research Training program, or NeuroSMART, has trained 76 high school students in semester-long neuroscience research classes and given them career exposure and internships via site visits and interactions with Kemin scientists. In October, NeuroSMART was one of 13 projects across Iowa selected by the governor’s STEM advisory council to receive a STEM BEST® grant – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (plus) Businesses Engaging Students and Teachers – for 2018-2019. The $25,000 award can be used for educator training, equipment, workplace-classroom integration and curriculum development.

Dr. Spocter and Aracely Miron-Ocampo presented a poster at the DMU Research Symposium on Dec. 6.

“This award recognizes programs that really unite the workplace with the classroom,” Spocter says.

The NeuroSMART program was praised by Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds in her Condition of the State address on Jan. 15.

Students in the program are now working with Spocter and Kemin representatives to build a business model aimed at enhancing anatomy instruction through the development and sale of 3D-printed models of the mammalian brain.

“Very little brain dissection is done in high school classes. These low-cost models could allow for the exploration of brain anatomy in a comparative and evolutionary context,” Spocter says. “We’ll be able to color-code different parts of the brain to help students learn the anatomy and to visually stimulate their interest in neuroscience, while jointly getting them to think about the business end of producing anatomical tools that could be used in the classroom. One aspect of NeuroSMART is to take what our students have learned and develop a service learning project aimed at educating the public about the brain and brain health.”

Aracely Miron-Ocampo is one of the leaders in that effort. A senior at Des Moines’ Hoover High School, she takes courses at Central Campus and got involved with NeuroSMART in her junior year. At the ninth annual DMU Research Symposium on Dec. 6, she presented a poster about NeuroSMART. Her co-authors were Spocter; Kacia Cain, a Central Campus instructor and co-founder of the NeuroSMART project; and Brenda Fonseca, senior global technical services manager of Kemin’s cognition platform.

“Before participating in the NeuroSMART program, it had never occurred to me how ingenious the idea of combining a scientific background and business was,” Miron-Ocampo says. She displayed with her poster some 3D-printed brain models, including a colorful set adorning a keychain. “I think this is the case for numerous individuals who do not recognize the potential that a scientific mindset can contribute to entrepreneurship from the aspect of contributing ideas, knowledge and creativity, which are key to the success of a start-up.”

Aracely displays mini-3D brains she fashioned into key chains.

That’s also key to companies like Kemin Industries, which has manufacturing facilities around the globe that produce more than 500 specialty ingredients used in human and animal food, textiles and commercial horticulture. Partnerships like NeuroSMART fit the company’s service philosophy and may provide a return on its investment.

“We believe there are many direct benefits for Kemin to engage students in the sciences, especially the fact that someday these incredible high school students may end up working at Kemin,” Fonseca says. NeuroSMART students have toured the company’s Des Moines facilities and had Q&A sessions with its scientists. Fonseca, Spocter and the students also had an exhibit at the governor’s 2018 Future Ready Iowa Summit.

“We appreciate the Iowa STEM BEST Award because it is recognizing the value of this program and the impact it is having on the students’ lives, Fonseca says. “And the additional funding will allow the program to continue to expand and touch even more students’ lives.”