What's in a Brain?
Bring the brain to life for your students with thought-provoking activities
By Nicole Schon
On Earth, there are many natural wonders we have yet to fully explore, most of which the ordinary person will never experience. Depths of the ocean beckon, and mass networks of caves lay undiscovered. Yet, perhaps the most fascinating of all frontiers is one we engage with every day: the human brain. This relatively small ball of flesh boasts over 100,000 miles of transport systems, enabling connections between billions of cells that each send out up to 1,000 messages every second via electrical currents. Responsible for our every thought, action, and emotion, the inner-workings of the brain are a puzzle students will love to unravel.
A global affair
Schools around the world celebrate this unassuming lump of gray matter during Brain Awareness Week, which runs annually from March 12-18th. While one main goal of this international event is to increase awareness of the latest progress in brain research for adults and children alike, there is also a drive to excite kids about the possibilities that exist in this line of work. Whether you’re teaching kindergarten or high school physiology, this is the perfect week to inspire young scientists in your classroom.
Bringing the brain to life in your classroom
As with any concept, there are a myriad of ways to delve into learning about the brain in your classroom. While a natural science topic, cross-curricular activities can inspire deeper understanding of the incredible, and often mysterious, functions of the brain. One technique that works for any age is to engage in personification, where students “step into the shoes” of each part of the brain. How does the amygdala earn its living? Who is the neocortex friends with and why? What kind of personality does the frontal lobe have?
This activity can extend in many directions, from short, “biographical” essays, to clever poems or comic strips revealing the inner nature of each different part of the brain. Alternately, students can write, perform and videotape a short skit or play involving the new characters they have invented. If you have a 3-D model of a brain handy (or you want to build one), students can write and attach speech bubbles to let each brain section speak for itself. This type of learning not only fosters creativity and critical thinking, it also makes it more likely that students will retain their hard-earned knowledge.
Studies on the brain push steadily forward each year, and researchers are eager to spread the current knowledge to evoke enthusiasm in the next generation. As such, many institutions provide resources geared specifically for the classroom. Lessons are readily available from a wide variety of sources, including research companies, hospitals, and universities. For example, the Society for Neuroscience (http://www.sfn.org) offers up not only a host of free online information and tools to engage K-12 students, but also class sets of books, complete with a CD, to educate your class about the brain. If you prefer a more personal experience, there’s even a neuroscientist-teacher partnership program available where experts will come to your classroom either in person or virtually. Googling “Brain Awareness Week” will connect you with scores of further resources, and you can also use the lessons listed below to fuel your neurons' teaching creativity.
Geared toward secondary classes (but certainly adaptable for any grade), this PBS lesson takes students on a virtual 3-D tour of the brain and its functions before asking them to create their own graphic map of the brain. A worksheet, assessments, and detailed procedures are included.
Perception and the Brain
Who doesn’t love playing tricks on the mind? Using prism glasses, learners engage in a variety of tasks that test their understanding of perception. Extensions include an entire optical illusion website, where students can learn more about ways the brain can be deceived. http://kids.niehs.nih.gov/games/illusions/index.htm
Get students motivated by incorporating their favorite tunes! Music’s effect on memory is measured and graphed as students complete their work. Though the focus in the procedures is on retention of biology concepts, any subject could be substituted.