January 3, 2012
Dr. Finger, along with museum curator Nicole Garneau, Ph.D.

Why do onions make us cry? How come peppers are hot? Why do you use mice to study taste and smell?

Inquiring young minds had some great questions for Professor Tom Finger of the CU School of Medicine’s Department of Cell and Developmental Biology and the Rocky Mountain Taste and Smell Center last month. Dr. Finger hosted four hours of live lab interaction as students connected via the web while at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science as well as from their classrooms in Montana, Texas, New Jersey, New York and across Colorado.

Dr. Finger, along with museum curator Nicole Garneau, Ph.D., conducted four one-hour sessions educating fifth- through seventh-graders across the country. It’s all part of the museum’s Healthy, Unique You distance learning program which aims to make science come alive for young people. The museum regularly hosts these sessions, but originating from the labs on the Anschutz Medical Campus was a first. Students got to see inside the real working labs of the Rocky Mountain Taste and Smell Center.

Dr. Finger gushed with excitement for science as he explained how the brain and body work together to taste and smell. He gave the students a simple experiment to help them better understand the senses. He encouraged them to hold their noses closed while eating something to see how limited the sense of taste really is. Then when the students let go of their nose and breathed normally, they got the full flavor of food, which is a combination of taste and smell.

A fifth-grade boy tried to do just that and said, “One thing I learned is that if you close your nose and eat a sandwich you do not smell. This broadcast gave me a better understanding of what scientists do!”

One teacher said her students were in awe while another shared this:

“Tom and Nicole did an excellent job of explaining taste and with enough clarity for the children to comprehend the information. Understanding taste, something they all love, was the most valuable thing the children took away from this experience. It is wonderful to know why your body does what it does. This should certainly be a regular occurrence.”

Connecting with the students is part of the center’s community outreach efforts. Dr. Finger says the day was a chance to connect with students in hopes of sparking the career of a future scientist or two.

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