The brain is vital to our existence. It controls our voluntary movements, and it regulates involuntary activities such as breathing and heartbeat. The brain serves as the seat of human consciousness: it stores our memories, enables us to feel emotions, and gives us our personalities. In short, the brain dictates the behaviors that allow us to survive and makes us who we are. Scientists have worked for many years to unravel the complex workings of the brain. Their research efforts have greatly improved our understanding of brain function.
The American public has the opportunity to learn of new research findings about the brain regularly through media reports of scientific breakthroughs and discoveries. However, not all of the information we receive is accurate. As a result of misinformation presented by various media, many people maintain misconceptions about the brain and brain function. This problem may be compounded by textbooks for middle school students that present little, if any, scientific information on the brain as the organ that controls human behavior. By providing students with a conceptual framework about the brain, we significantly increase our chances of producing an informed public with the tools needed to correctly interpret brain research findings.
The Brain: Our Sense of Self has several objectives. One is to introduce students to the key concept that the sense of self, our sense of identity, is contained within the brain. Through inquiry-based activities, students investigate brain function and the various roles of the brain within the nervous system. A second objective is to allow students to develop the understanding that brain function is not predetermined; the brain can change with learning throughout life. The lessons in this module help students sharpen their skills in observation, critical thinking, experimental design, and data analysis. They also make connections to other disciplines such as English, history, mathematics, and social science.
A third objective is to convey to students the purpose of scientific research. Ongoing research affects how we understand the world around us and gives us the foundation for improving choices about our personal health and the health of our community. In this module, students experience how science provides evidence that can be used to understand and treat human disease. Because the mission of the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke includes helping the public understand the importance of brain and nervous system function to their health, education is an important activity for the Institute.
The lessons in this module encourage students to think about the relationships among knowledge, choice, behavior, and human health in this way:
Knowledge (what is known and not known) + Choice = Power
Power + Behavior = Enhanced Human Health
The final objective of this module is to encourage students to think in terms of these relationships now and as they grow older.
Middle school life science classes offer an ideal setting for integrating many areas of student interest. In this module, students participate in activities that integrate inquiry, science, human health, mathematics, and science-technology-society relationships. The real-life context of the module’s classroom lessons is engaging for students, and the knowledge gained can be applied immediately to students’ lives.
“The hands-on nature of the module was excellent. It generated student interest and kept learning fun.”—Field-Test Teacher
“The inquiry approach of the module was challenging to the students at the right level—it activated the learning process. All students could successfully participate in all activities.”—Field-Test Teacher
“I think that the most valuable aspect of the lessons was that they were related to real-life experiences. Also, since the Web activities were hands-on, they were fun and I learned a lot that would have been hard to understand otherwise.”—Field-Test Student
“The lessons were interesting, promoted thinking, and allowed me to learn something I didn’t know before. Overall, the module inspired me to learn more about the brain and how it functions.”—Field-Test Student
The Brain: Our Sense of Self meets many of the criteria by which teachers and their programs are assessed.
In addition, the module provides a means for professional development. Teachers can engage in new and different teaching practices like those described in this module without completely overhauling their entire program. In Designing Professional Development for Teachers of Science and Mathematics, Susan Loucks-Horsley et al.18 write that replacement modules such as this one “offer a window through which teachers get a glimpse of what new teaching strategies look like in action.” By experiencing a short-term unit like this one, teachers can “change how they think about teaching and embrace new approaches that stimulate students to problem solve, reason, investigate, and construct their own meaning for the content.” The use of supplements like this module can encourage reflection and discussion and stimulate teachers to improve their practices by focusing on student learning through inquiry.
The following table correlates topics often included in the life science curriculum with the major concepts presented in this module. This information is presented to help teachers make decisions about incorporating this material into the curriculum.
|Topics||Lesson 1||Lesson 2||Lesson 3||Lesson 4||Lesson 5|
|Localization of brain function|
|General functions of specific brain regions|
|Anatomy of the neuron|
|Relationship of science, technology, and society|
|Organisms sense and respond to environmental stimuli|
Next: Implementing the Module