Program teaches techniques for staying calm, focused on science

Jul. 25, 2014 @ 01:08 PM

It started about three years ago, when Bart Brigidi said he and his wife missed the deadline to enroll their two children, then aged 5 and 3, in summer camp. Since they couldn’t send their kids away to camp, they decided to create their own.

Drawing on Brigidi’s background as a researcher and neuropsychologist, they came up with the idea for a camp that would teach children techniques to remain calm so they could focus on science, technology, engineering and math activities.

Brigidi bought some Lego kits, and his wife, Jasmine Min, got certified as a yoga instructor. The plan was to use the yoga and breathing exercises as a technique to get students to calm down so they could focus on building Lego robots.

Science, technology, engineering and math activities “can be complex, and can cause some stress, some fear of failure,” Brigidi said. “So what we try to do is learn techniques…to be calm.”

Now called the Work it! Academy, the program they started is still going with a mission to teach children mindfulness techniques to help them stay calm and to help them focus on science.

The word “mindfulness” describes a state of paying attention moment-to-moment, and without judgment, Brigidi said. He works in private practice as a neuropsychologist, and is associate director of the Duke University Laboratory of Neurogenetics.

At the laboratory, he said his research involves brain imaging and genetics to study the parts of the brain that are important for emotion regulation and staying calm.

“It’s teaching folks how to focus, remain calm, and there are lots of health benefits of doing that on a regular basis through things like meditation,” he said of mindfulness. “And you can see how all of that would be important in working on robotics, or some kind of STEM activity,” he added.

Through the Work it! Academy, Brigidi said they’ve held a summer program and offer after-school programs. He has also worked to train teachers. He trained a teacher to run a class this summer through Student U, a program for Durham Public Schools middle and high school students that aims to see them graduate and get into college. 

In the program, students take summer enrichment classes to retain what they’ve learned in the school year, and to prepare for the next. The program offers tutoring and study support during the school year.

On a weekday recently, Brigidi stood in front of three Student U students at a classroom in Durham Academy Upper School. After tapping a bell and counting to three, he asked the students to raise their hands when they could no longer hear the bell ringing.

“Is anyone becoming more focused, more relaxed?” Brigidi asked. Then, he asked them about the Lego robots they had built, which were sitting on the table in front of them. One student said they were really hard to build, while another said he’d built something like that before.

Brigidi said the activities can make the students feel like they want to give up.

“What I want to bring up is that being calm is a good way to get through all that,” he said.

Then he turned it over to the classroom teacher, Christian Lopez, who taught them a lesson on mindfulness, what “STEM” stands for,” and what jobs might be out there in STEM fields. Then he and the students started working on programming the Lego robots.

Ashley Rouse, a Student U school social worker, said Student U is open to professionals in the community who are experts in their fields coming in to mentor students, especially when they’re also teaching and building coping skills for students to help them get through potentially stressful situations.

Brigidi had previously volunteered with the program to do testing and memory training.

During the Student U class, Khadiq Sams, a Durham School of the Arts student, said he thought the Lego robotics was “pretty cool” and a fun thing to do.

He also said he’s learned that learning robotics may not be easy, but “you have to think about the mindfulness.”

“If (I’m) really frustrated, I just breath, (stay calm), and do what I gotta do,” he said.