Brain Awareness Week is March 11–17. This is an excellent opportunity for you to discuss the importance of neuroscience in your class using engaging activities. As a former instructor, I often found that teaching neuroscience could be challenging. Neuroscience is a broad field, and students need to understand molecular and cellular concepts, as well as brain anatomy and physiology. After years of teaching, I found several ways that seemed to make neuroscience easier for my students to understand. I’d like to share them with you.
Brain Structure: Taking a Closer Look
The brain is a collection of highly specialized cells with specialized functions. Different brain regions can have vastly differentiated cell types with distinctive shapes and purposes. Getting access to prepared slides of brain tissue from different brain regions can be difficult and costly. With this in mind, I have created a set of downloadable images of slides for you to use in your classroom. These images come from my personal collection and include Cajal-stained slides of the rat spinal cord, as well as Golgi-stained slides of rat cerebellum. The slides were given to me by a fellow histologist when he retired, and I captured images of many of his rare specimens to use in my classes.
When teaching students, I tried to make things as relevant as possible; so we learned about the histology of a brain region, the gross anatomy of that brain region, and then the function of that brain region. For example, the cerebellum is located at the base of the brain, and it contains a series of very specialized cells or neurons. One distinctive neuron type is the Purkinje cell. You can show your students what this cell looks like by showing them the Golgi Stained Purkinje Cells from the slide images referenced above. You might ask students to research the primary functions of the cerebellum, one of which is balance. You can then have the students perform a simple balance activity so they can learn that a cell type in this region of the brain helps them maintain balance.
Brain Function: Finding Your Balance
Balance is a complex task that involves input from multiple sensory sources. Visual input, proprioceptors from the limbs and joints, and input from the inner ears are all involved in balance. Our biology department created the “Balance” experiment (found in the Vernier Human Physiology Experiments lab book) where students use the Go Direct® Force and Acceleration Sensor to detect movement while a subject balances on two legs and then on one leg, first with eyes open and then closed.
Students intuitively understand that it is much easier to balance with their eyes open, but now they can measure the magnitude of movement for each condition using acceleration data. Less stability results in larger and more frequent movements, which produces greater accelerations. As illustrated by the graph, there is much more movement by the subject when the eyes are closed than when the eyes are open.
Additional Resources for Your Classroom
If you’re looking for more ideas on what to do with your students during Brain Awareness Week, check out these resources from BrainFacts.org, where they provide an interactive brain map and various brain-related facts and activities. There’s also an activity that uses Prism Adaptation goggles that is very popular. This is a great example of visuo-motor plasticity that is also mediated in part by the cerebellum. If your students are feeling creative and inspired, enter the Brain Awareness Video Contest from the Society of Neuroscience. If you enter the contest and use Vernier technology, don’t forget to share it with us on your social channels and tag us @VernierST.
Lacey Hoosier of Buckeye High School in Rapides Parish, Louisiana, was the 2018 recipient of the National Association of Biology Teachers’ NABT Ecology/Environmental Science Teaching Award, which is sponsored by Vernier.
Lacey’s students are active learners who participate in solving engineering problems, educate the community about vital environmental concepts, and volunteer their time to rehabilitate animals while learning about each animal’s characteristics and habitat. In addition to teaching, Lacey sponsors and coaches six extracurricular clubs/teams, serves as a Wildlife Rescuer and Rehabilitationist, and advocates for Environmental Science Community Education. Her passion for animals translates to her classroom as many animals surround her students as they learn to become knowledgeable and responsible proponents for the environment.
“Teaching is one of the most rewarding professions in the world,” she explains. “We have the unique ability to shape a mind and unlock passions otherwise unknown or unexplored. Our job is to prepare students from all walks of life for a variety of future professions. It is a privilege to be able to influence the next generation by igniting a passion in them for learning about the world around them.”
STREAM Girls, a new outdoor STEM program for girls, is a partnership between Trout Unlimited and the Girl Scouts of America. Using water quality testing equipment donated by Vernier Software & Technology, this watershed experience combines STEM education, recreation, and arts to explore a local stream.
Every person is a citizen of her watershed, and by visiting a local stream and having the opportunity to observe it as scientists, anglers, and artists, girls get the complete picture of what their stream could mean to them. Beyond science, Scouts were introduced to fly fishing, camping, conservation, and outdoor ecology. Trout Unlimited and the Girl Scouts of America hope to continue to inspire new leaders that will steward and conserve our country’s precious natural resources.
It can be challenging to engage students in science activities, despite how exciting the lessons are. As an Education Technology Specialist at Vernier Software & Technology, I frequently receive phone calls and inquiries from elementary and middle school teachers looking for ways to engage their students with hands-on science experiments. Teachers are tasked with teaching an array of subjects, and as a result, many find themselves teaching science despite not having the experience to describe complicated and seemingly intimidating concepts in an effective and stimulating way. After years of attending and conducting workshops with teachers of all levels, and being a former science teacher myself, I know this to be an especially significant challenge for teachers.
First and foremost, when it comes to getting students excited about science, it’s important to make sure science is hands on. Sometimes teachers have all the materials but don’t have the knowledge to explain the science behind the experiments. Some teachers struggle to find the time to set up investigations that are both effective and engaging.
Regardless of the issue, I have four simple methods I’d love to share that will help you get your students truly excited about science while keeping you sane.
1. Ask questions to involve students and keep them interested.
The best way to get students thinking like real scientists is to treat them like real scientists. By asking your students questions about science phenomena, simple observable events that drive student inquiry, and the concepts behind them, you can awaken prior knowledge and get students more involved in making observations, predictions, and hypotheses. With their attention fully engaged, you can apply their prior knowledge to a different reaction/phenomenon that students are less familiar with—extending this knowledge into new areas. By encouraging students to use existing knowledge for new discoveries, you help build student interest and motivation to find answers.
2. Learn alongside your students.
Show your students the fun of science experimentation by demonstrating your own interest and curiosity. You don’t have to be an expert to learn alongside your students, so dive in! Become involved by asking your own questions, taking part in investigations, and engaging in interactive feedback. When students see that you’re engaged in an investigation, their curiosity is piqued and they want to be engaged as well.
3. Save time with easy experiment setup and quick results.
Money can be hard to come by in schools; big experiments with delicate tools and complicated setups are often expensive and cumbersome, making them impractical for the classroom. One way to ease this burden is to simplify your roster of investigations and the tools used to conduct them. Instead of dealing with expensive and difficult equipment, invest in products that are cost effective, durable, east to set up, and designed with students in mind. Find tools that work with technology you already have in your classroom.
4. Make it a cross-curricular event.
Demonstrate to students that science exists in all aspects of their lives by overlapping other school subjects into discussions and investigations. Have them write ‘professional’ hypotheses; for instance, to practice writing—find a curve fit for their data to apply math concepts—or try exploring the history behind different science concepts to incorporate social studies. Whichever subject you choose to cross, have fun with it and use your creativity! This cross-curricular approach is not only a powerful way to stress the connection between subjects, but it’s exciting for students to better understand science in a real-world capacity.
With these four methods you’ll see more engagement from your students regardless of your prior experience teaching science. By asking questions, learning alongside your students, investing in products that help you save time, and doing experiments that can incorporate other subject areas, you’re sure to get your students excited about science.
At Vernier, we strive to equip teachers to not only teach science but to teach it in the most engaging way possible. If you’re looking for more ideas on how to engage students in the classroom, join Nüs for a webinar where he’ll discuss this as well as other cognitive teaching strategies and the impact of the hands-on approach to science. Watch as he uses a temperature probe to measure temperature changes during an experiment involving a reaction between common household products.
Darwin Day is coming up on Wednesday, February 12th. It presents an excellent opportunity to introduce or discuss the concept of evolution by natural selection with your students. While I’m now part of the Vernier Biology Department, I previously worked for 15 years as a university biology professor and know first hand how creative teachers have to get when introducing new concepts to a classroom of students. There are plenty of ways to get students excited about evolution, and here are a few ideas.
Introducing Evolution with Candy
Hands-on activities easily engage students, and when I was teaching biology, one of my favorite ways to introduce evolution was with a candy hunt. You can find multiple versions of this exercise online using different types of candies, but I like mixing together a bag of plain M&M’s® (the original kind with six colors) and several bags of candy corn (the original yellow, orange, and white type) in a large shallow bowl or tub. I pass it around and ask students to select a number of M&M’s® but not to eat them. You can vary the number they choose to match your class size.
Once the candy circulates around the entire room, we count how many of each color of M&M’s® were selected and graph it on the board. The results are always striking. Very few of the yellow and orange M&M’s® are typically selected, while more contrasting colors, especially blue and green, are selected in higher proportions.
Right away, students can begin picturing the forces at work in the natural world. We then talk about the variation of our “population” of M&M’s® and how some “individuals” might have a selective advantage by blending in with the substrate (candy corn) whereas others were easier for their “predators” to spot. The exercise makes a fun prelude to a more in-depth lesson on evolution and natural selection.
Deepening Student Understanding of Evolution
I found that incorporating a variety of interactive and informative activities resonated with my students. After introducing the concept of evolution through the candy hunt, I used a mixture of short videos and hands-on experiments. If you enjoy sharing media with your class, you can also browse HHMI BioInteractive’s evolution collection, where you can find a wealth of free activities and short films.
One of my favorite films is The Making of a Theory: Darwin, Wallace and Natural Selection. This half hour piece presents a compelling history lesson, telling the stories of both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, which helps students visualize the physical and intellectual journeys that led these two men to the discovery of evolution and natural selection.
Whether your lesson plan includes activities like the candy hunt, videos, or other approaches, engaging students through evolution-themed laboratory activities are highly effective, and Vernier has multiple experiments to fit your class. Our inquiry-based laboratory experiments include exploring the evolution of yeast, comparing the respiratory systems of different aquatic organisms, and many more. You can access more information about these experiments here.
The annual Vernier Engineering Contest provides a great opportunity for educators to showcase how they are creatively using Vernier technology to introduce engineering concepts to students. Contest entries can include activities such as introducing coding by reading Vernier sensors with Scratch, using sensors in the engineering design process, controlling digital outputs based on Vernier sensor inputs, integrating Vernier sensors with robotics platforms such as LEGO®, VEX®, or Arduino®, and so much more.
The deadline to submit your application for the 2019 Vernier Engineering Contest is February 15, 2019.
The winning educator, selected by a panel of Vernier experts, will receive $1,000 in cash, $3,000 in Vernier technology, and $1,500 toward expenses to attend either the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) STEM conference or the ASEE conference.
Tate Rector, an Engineering and Project Lead The Way teacher at Beebe Public Schools, challenged his 8th grade engineering students to present a solution (using Vernier sensors with LEGO® MINDSTORMS® Education EV3) to an everyday problem in order to make connections with the engineering practices identified in NGSS.
“Winning the Vernier Engineering Contest in 2015 kick-started our engineering program here at our school,” said Tate Rector, a teacher at Beebe Junior High in Arkansas and a former Vernier Engineering Contest winner. “While my 7th and 8th grade students used to think it was just fun or cool to see things explode or fly, evaluation of the data we collect using Vernier technology has helped them see the reason why we do the experiments.”
The deadline for applications for the 2019 Vernier/NSTA Technology Awards is quickly approaching. This annual awards program recognizes seven educators—one elementary teacher, two middle school teachers, three high school teachers, and one college-level educator—for their innovative uses of data-collection technology in the science classroom or laboratory.
Each winner, chosen by a panel of NSTA-appointed experts, will receive $1,000 in cash, $3,000 in Vernier products, and up to $1,500 toward expenses to attend the annual NSTA National Conference in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 11–14, 2019.
All current K–12 and college science educators are eligible to apply. The deadline for submitting an application is December 17, 2018.
Last year’s award winners, including Robert Hodgdon from Richmond Hill Middle School, Richmond Hill, Georgia, demonstrated a variety of ways data-collection technology can be used in and out of the classroom. Hodgdon engaged his students in real-world ecological investigations to help them develop STEM career readiness skills. This included students using Vernier data-collection technology, such as pH sensors, to understand the biotic and abiotic factors relevant to their local habitats including tidal marshes, ephemeral wetlands, and relic forests.
“Winning the Vernier/NSTA Awards provided us with a new collection of LabQuest® 2 interfaces, as well as new temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, and conductivity probes,” said Hodgdon. “Students are able to use these technologies during ecological activities and as an integrated part of their science instruction year-round.”
“Computer science empowers students to create the world of tomorrow.”
– Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO
What is Hour of Code?
The Hour of Code™ is a global movement introducing tens of millions of students worldwide to computer science, inspiring kids to learn more, breaking stereotypes, and leaving them feeling empowered. The Hour of Code began as a one-hour coding challenge to give students a fun first introduction to computer science and has become a global learning event, celebration, and awareness event.
Why computer science?
Computer science is foundational and is changing every industry on the planet. Every 21st-century student should have the opportunity to learn how to create technology. Computer science concepts also help nurture creativity and problem-solving skills to prepare students for any future career.
Economic Opportunity for All
Computing occupations are the fastest-growing, best paying, and now the largest sector of all new wages in the US. Every child deserves the opportunity to succeed.
Students love it!
Recent surveys show that among classes students “like a lot,” computer science and engineering rank near the top—only performing arts, art, and design are higher.
Ready to participate with your class?
We’ve created two free coding activities utilizing Scratch to help you and your students participate in Hour of Code this year. Scratch offers colorful and modularized drag-and-drop graphical blocks that make it easy for programmers to code.
Hour of Code Activity for Entry Level Coders
In this activity students program a catch game where they can make choices on graphics and game options. The free Scratch software works on your web-connected device.
If you have an Low-g Accelerometer in your classroom, our free activity guide integrates the sensor into the Catch Game activity and your students learn how to integrate their code with hardware.
For more advanced coders, this activity combines Scratch-based coding and exploration of the ideal gas laws. Students can change multiple variables and observe changes. Results can be compared with their calculations.
The ‘Hour of Code™’ is a nationwide initiative by Computer Science Education Week [csedweek.org] and Code.org [code.org] to introduce millions of students to one hour of computer science and computer programming.