Bringing the brain into your classroom! Learning about the brain is an adventure that students of all ages can enjoy. Dr. Eric Chudler shows how experimentation and hands-on activities can enable each student to become a living laboratory, exploring the realms of vision, hearing, taste, touch and smell.

CERVEAU – GEHIRN – CERVELLO – CEREBRO – HJERNE – OTAK – MOZEK

These words, in seven different languages, represent the most important, the most complex, and in my opinion the most fascinating structure in the universe…the brain. For centuries, scientists have attempted to unravel the mysteries of the brain to better understand what makes us who we are.

In order to keep up with the new discoveries in the neurosciences and to appreciate the complexity of the brain, the study of the nervous system should be part of every student’s education. Project 2061, a program developed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Research Council have established several benchmarks and standards that call for the understanding of specific scientific concepts, including many related to the nervous system. According to Project 2061, students should know the following series of benchmarks:

By the end of second grade:
“Senses warn individuals about danger. The brain enables human beings to think and sends messages to other body parts to help them work properly.”
By the end of fifth grade:
“The brain get signals from all parts of the body telling what is going on there. The brain also sends signals to parts of the body to influence what they do.”
By the end of eighth grade:
“Interactions among the senses, nerves and brain make possible the learning that enables human beings to cope with changes in their environment.”
By the end of twelfth grade:
“The nervous system works by electrochemical signals in the nerves and from one nerve to the next. Along nerve cells, electrical impulses carry information much more rapidly than is possible by diffusion of blood flow.”

Learning about the brain should be an adventure. Certainly there are many new words and unfamiliar terms to remember, but the best way to discover how the brain works is by experimentation and hands-on activities. The Project 2061 benchmarks provide one framework within which to build resources related to neuroscience for students of different ages. For elementary school students, activities should focus on the senses. Older students can direct their attention to neuroanatomy and neurophysiology.

A “Living Laboratory”
Exploring the senses is easy since everyone is a living laboratory with a set of sensory receptors to test. Vision, audition, gustation, somatosensation, olfaction – a young student may not know these words, but certainly knows that the eyes, ears, tongue, skin and nose bring information from the outside world. Simple experiments using touch boxes, taste and smell tests, or visual illusions can reinforce the concept that the brain processes and interprets external stimuli. Older students can devise their own experiments to test their classmates’ sensory abilities and to extend their learning by asking questions about gender and age differences. For example, a simple “2-point discrimination” test illustrates the concepts of peripheral receptor density and distribution of the body surface on brain maps. Students and teachers can also discuss disabilities and neural plasticity while learning about the senses.

Neuroanatomy should not be a dry, boring exercise in memorization. Rather, students can be very creative, building models of the brain or a neuron using a variety of media, such as clay, playdough, and recyclable materials. Even potato flakes, oatmeal, beads, pipe cleaners, and Jell-O can be used to create models. Brain models also provide the opportunity to discuss specialization of neural structures.

Even the youngest student knows that the brain is located in the skull. However, most students do not know the size of the brain. Ask any group of middle or high school students how much the brain weighs and you will likely get an answer of “eight pounds.” Actually, the average human adult brain weighs about three pounds (about 2% of the total body weight). Apparently, many students have seen the Hollywood movie Jerry Maguire, in which a small boy in the film says, “Did you know the human head weighs 8 pounds?” This is a golden opportunity to correct a misconception.

The sheer number of individual cells in the brain also fascinates students. Young students usually guess that there are hundreds or perhaps thousands of cells in the brain. The number of neurons in the human brain is estimated to be about 100 billion. The number of cells that provide support to the brain, called glial cells, is estimated to be 10 to 50 times the number of neurons. Moreover, there are trillions of synapses between neurons. These numbers never fail to draw sounds of astonishment.

Comparative neuroanatomy, using either actual brain specimens or photographs, allows students to question the meaning of brain size. Students are always intrigued by the fact that the adult human male brain (1.45 kg) weighs more than the adult human female brain (1.29 kg; Dekaban et al. 1978). These data usually elicit many questions from students regarding brain size and intelligence.

Basic concepts about neurophysiology can also be modeled with simple materials. For example, to model chemical transmission at the synapse, each student can be a neuron: one arm is the dendrite, the body is the cell body and the other arm is the axon. By arranging students in a line, a “chain of neurons” can be created. Each student should hold a neurotransmitter (a vial of water or some other material) in his or her hand. Passing the “neurotransmitter” from one student to the next will simulate transmission of information through this neuron chain. Moreover, the role of myelin in nerve conduction can be addressed. Invariably, during this activity a vial will be dropped as it is passed from one “neuron” to the next. This is an opportunity to discuss the effects of psychoactive drugs on the nervous system and behavior since these chemicals act by modifying neurotransmission at the synapse (e.g., increasing neurotransmitter release, blocking the neurotransmitter release, blocking postsynaptic receptor sites, preventing neurotransmitter reuptake).

Learning about the nervous system does not need to be restricted to science class. Rather, the history of neuroscience, from the writings on the brain in ancient Egyptian papyri to modern brain imaging methods to the life stories of distinguished neuroscientists offer a rich source of information in social studies. Numerous creative writing projects, art activities and even outside games can be integrated with a lesson on the brain.

Although any time during the year can be used to study the nervous system, perhaps the best time is during the month of March. Several years ago, the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives and the Society for Neuroscience initiated an event called Brain Awareness Week (BAW). BAW, held each March, is a worldwide event to raise public awareness about brain research. Schools, hospitals and laboratories across the U.S. and Europe sponsor exhibits, lectures and activities to celebrate the wonders of the brain (Chudler et al., 1999). BAW is a great opportunity to highlight student work and to share your knowledge of the brain with the entire community.

As the end of the Decade of the Brain quickly approaches, there is still much work for neuroscientists, and many questions about the brain remain unanswered. It is imperative that our students understand the field of neuroscience to formulate new questions about how the nervous system functions and to gain a deeper appreciation for the mysteries of the brain.

Web resources:

  1. American Academy of Neurology
  2. Comparative Mammalian Brain Collection
  3. Neuroscience for Kids