How hands-on learning fires up your brain

To strengthen your mind, work with your hands, says former astronaut Leland Melvin.

LELAND MELVIN: When I was a kid, my dad drove a $500 bread truck into our driveway and I thought we were going into the bread business. And he said, "No, this is our camper." I said, "I can read – it says Marita Bread and Rolls on the side of the truck." And over that summer we build bunk beds that flipped down, we made a sofa, we plumbed a propane tank into a Coleman stove, we rewired the entire truck. Over that summer I learned how to be an engineer and I was in middle school so it was experimental learning. And it wasn't until we painted the side of the truck that I realized we're going to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, on vacation in this recreational vehicle. So experiential learning, whether it comes from home, school, wherever you get it, Boys and Girls Club, but we have to give kids meaningful things to do with their hands and give them problems that can help solve problems in their community or in the world and not just do make-work stuff. And I think when we let them build and create and it's meaningful and it helps them solve a problem, that gets them thinking about how they can be change makers themselves and how they can be scientists and engineers because that's what they're doing. They're thinking creatively and they're solving problems. And that's what we do as engineers and scientists. And so get them early building and creating things that are meaningful. Like I built a bread truck that saved the day for us. And we didn't have to spend it $24,000 on a Winnebago when we have a $500 bread truck that serves the same purpose – getting the family, in the cheapest way possible, to a destination so that the family can explore these new surroundings.

The intellectual side of learning and the physical side of learning how are they connected and what is that interplay? And I think Lego has done a really great job of teaching kids to play with these bigger Duplo blocks or the bigger blocks where they're trying to move them from one side of the body to the other side, because if you split the brain, as you're going across the brain, you are now making this physical space connection with both sides of your brain. And their play is intentional to have kids do that at a very early age. And so understanding how my body works, how I turn and twist and jump when I'm catching a pass has the same effect as me working hand controllers on the International Space Station, moving the $2 billion Columbus Laboratory out of the payload bay of the shuttle and attaching it to the space station. I have to know how to position my body in zero gravity where I'm not floating off and I'm going to put in the wrong hand controller motion that's going to slap the thing into the side of the space station and kill the project and maybe kill us. So body, mind, spatial reasoning, body spatial reasoning are all connected to solving problems. You have these foot straps you put your feet in that keep you from translating around, but still you have to react off the hand controllers just like you do off the foot straps. And I think understanding your body in space as well as on the ground helps you do these technical things that are challenging with your body.

  • Learning is a mental and physical pursuit, says retired astronaut Leland Melvin.
  • Recalling his childhood, Melvin explains how working with his dad to turn a $500 bread truck into a family RV camper ultimately made him a better astronaut, able to maneuver the $2-billion dollar Columbus Laboratory out of the payload bay of a shuttle and attach it to the International Space Station.
  • Experiential learning — like hands-on DIY, engineering kits, and Duplo games — wires your brain for problem solving from a young age. It's a leg-up we can all give to the children in our lives.
  • "[W]hen we let [kids] build and create and it's meaningful and it helps them solve a problem, that gets them thinking about how they can be change makers themselves and how they can be scientists and engineers," says Melvin.

An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

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