IU psychology students mentor middle schoolers

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) -- When they snapped on plastic gloves to hold a real human brain recently, Bloomington Project School students said they weren't even nervous.

"It's cool to think it was an actual human being who thought and cried," said Zoe Mantha, a 12-year-old BPS student.

Lily Macneil-Kitscher, 13, said she thought, "This is a person," when she ran her fingers over the rough folds and wrinkles.

"Every sensory experience you have comes from this small lump of tissue," Lisa Thomassen told the students while cupping a brain the color of tuna fish in her hand. "It's surprisingly small," she said, noting the brain, about the size and weight of a small cantaloupe, holds every memory you have in a lifetime.

The brains were donated to Indiana University, where the BPS students met up with Thomassen from the department of psychological and brain sciences. The group of seventh- and eighth-grade girls from BPS are involved in a mentoring program with IU students enrolled in a course on the psychology of adolescent girls, The Herald-Times reported (http://bit.ly/QnjfCN).

There were some timid smiles and wide eyes, but when it came time to touch the brains, the girls didn't hesitate.

"I was so excited to touch a brain," said 13-year-old Zoe Adams. She hopes to enter the medical field and is on the fence about being a cardiovascular surgeon or neurosurgeon. "This made me more open-minded about being a neurosurgeon."

In addition to touching a human brain, the girls tested their taste buds with miracle berry tablets made from a berry in West Africa. The berry alters the tongue's taste receptors, fooling your brain into thinking foods taste different than usual.

After rolling one of the berry tablets over their tongue, the girls tried a lemon, and it wasn't sour. It was like sipping a sugary lemonade.

"I was kind of nervous to lick the lemon," said 13-year-old Ada Port, who was expecting her lips to pucker. "I managed to eat the entire slice, including the peel. It tasted like candy."

"I didn't know our taste buds can be changed so easily," said Rachel Abdoo, a 12-year-old BPS student. "Just a little pill changed the whole way we taste."

While their time at IU gave them an opportunity to learn what a brain feels like and how it manages the body's functions, much of what the BPS students gain from their experience with what they call "Girls Group" isn't as tangible.

The middle-schoolers in Girls Group visit with an IU student twice a week at the Project School. There are 19 IU students from the department of psychological and brain sciences who visit with 70 area girls enrolled in the Project, Jackson Creek, Batchelor and Harmony schools. Mentors talk with them about issues teen girls face, ranging from body image, eating disorders and gender stereotypes to cyberbullying and women's academic achievement in science and math.

"The IU students present excellent role models for the middle school girls. In addition, each week they address an assigned topic that encourages the girls to consider positive ways to address the challenges they face during this developmental time period," said Linda Hoke-Sinex, the instructor for the IU course on the psychology of adolescent girls.

According to Hoke-Sinex, during adolescence, girls' "focus tends to shift from academics to appearance and socially related activities." Pressure from parents, peers, the media and society can cause teenagers to "experience a drop in self-esteem or a negative body image. Teen girls also begin to 'self-objectify,' meaning that they tend to lose touch with their own emotions and feelings because they feel they are merely objects for others to view," she said in an email.

Brooke Shafer, who is majoring in psychology at IU, pointed out "the prefrontal cortex is not developed yet." Because this portion of the brain is still maturing, teens are more likely to be impulsive and less rational, sometimes doing things without considering the consequences. "They're very influenced by their peers and gender roles in the media," Shafer said.

Anthony Rodriguez, a psychology and philosophy major at IU, is the only male student in the program. He points out that the feelings of adolescent girls are sometimes dismissed as melodrama. He encourages others to take them seriously. "Treat them with respect, and offer them alternatives," he said. "It's important to them at the time, and their problems are serious. Whether or not they may be unrealistic, they can lead to unhealthy thoughts."

From Shafer's point of view, "a mentor can make a world of difference."

She has seen students who are insecure and shy come out of their shell and become more confident as they progress through the mentoring program. "We hope they'll open up and we can set a positive example," Shafer said.

The chance to come on campus and meet with professors is an added bonus. "It gets them excited about college," she said.

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