NSF/NBC LEARN "Mysteries of the Brain: Thinking Brain" STEM Lesson Plan for Grades 7-12 Print


Students apply prior knowledge about neural networks as they extract information from video content. Students identify a challenge to explore about learning and memory and build science literacy as they closely read technical texts and write using scientific information.

Introduction Notes:

NSF/NBC LEARN Mysteries Of The Brain

Thinking Brain

STEM Lesson Plan for Grades 7–12

Developed by the National Science Teachers Association



About the Video

The focus of Mysteries of the Brain (MOTB): Thinking Brain is how all animals use the information they gather every day to adapt to their environment and aid in their survival. It features Dr. Gary Lynch, neurobiology professor at the University of California, Irvine. The video focuses on a process in the brain that is thought to underlie memory.


Related Concepts

  • action potential
  • adaptation
  • behavior
  • cerebrum
  • electro-chemical signals
  • neural network
  • neuron (and its principal parts: dendrites, cell body, axon)
  • synaptic plasticity (dynamic property of synapses)
  • synapse (and its principal parts: axon terminal, neurotransmitter, synaptic cleft, receptors, spine)
  • learning and memory


Brain Research—An Interdisciplinary Effort

The body of knowledge we have about the brain is a result of research in a variety of areas of science and in other fields on the structure and function of the brain and its relation to learning and memory:

     - Neurobiologists and neuroscientists study changes in the nervous system thought to underlie learning and memory.

     - Psychologists study properties of learning and memory in behavior.

     - Mathematicians and physicists develop theoretical methods and models for the study of neural networks involved in learning and memory.

     - Computer scientists and engineers create tools and devices for the study of neural networks.



Explore the Video

Use video to explore students’ prior knowledge, ideas, questions, and misconceptions. Have students write or use the prompts as discussion starters.


Video content

Bell Ringers


Series opening



The difference between life and death

Show section without sound. Have students make written predictions about what determines the prospect for survival.


Introduction to Dr. Gary Lynch

Students might use a Frayer graphic organizer to explore their understanding of neuroscience.


From neurons to the development of a network

Have students draw and label the network explained in this section. They might also create an analogy of what the network in this video makes them think of.


How neurons communicate with each other

Have students write questions they have about how neurons communicate with each other.


Changes in synapses and memory

Students could write a brief summary of what happens when synapses strengthen or weaken.


Mysteries remain….



Closing credits



Language Support

To aid those with limited English proficiency or others who need help focusing on the video, make available the transcript for the video. Click the Transcript tab on the side of the video window, then copy and paste into a document for student reference.



Explore and Challenge

After prompting to uncover what students already know, use video for a common background experience and follow with a minds-on or hands-on collaboration.

1.   Explore readiness to learn from the video with the following prompts:

     - One example of learning from experience I have had is….

     - Learning and practice are related by….

     - Things that affect learning include….

     - Memory is affected by….

     - Learning and memory impact each other….

     - The time required to learn something can be influenced by….

     - Constraints that limit memory are….

2.   Show the video and allow students to discuss their observations and questions. Elicit observations about the work setting and the tasks carried out as well as the content.

3.   Help students identify a challenge, which might be based on the questions they have. Teams should focus on questions that can be answered by research or an investigation. Possible activities that students might explore are offered below.



Identify the Challenge

In a class discussion, have students challenge each other with questions about effective strategies for improving learning and memory and brainstorm investigations that might follow. The third source cited in Build Science Literacy through Reading and Writing can provide a useful leg up on memory strategies. Potential areas that students might be interested in investigating include:

     - Identification of an efficient memory strategy

     - Identification of factors that make learning and memory retention more difficult

     - Exploring their own memories and what things are easy/hard to remember

     - What can be observed in the classroom about how signals are sent across their own vast neural network

     - How repeating tasks or changing steps in doing a task impacts learning and memory


Ask groups to choose one challenge and rephrase it in a way that it can be solved through media research or hands-on testing. Remind students that engineering design challenges connect to real-world problems and usually have multiple solutions. Each team should be able to explain and justify the challenge they will investigate using concepts and math previously learned. Approve each investigation based on student skill level and the practicality of each team completing an independent investigation. Help teams to revise their plans as needed.


Point out to students that the video described the dynamic connections between neurons in the brain and that their strength increases and decreases during learning, training, and memory formation, which result in long term changes in brain circuitry. Remind them that the brain continually prunes, builds, re-shapes, and re-establishes connections between neurons (synapses) during the learning process. Encourage students to use this information as evidence for claims they make or facts to support the conclusions they draw.



Investigate, Compare, and Revise

The video presents Dr. Gary Lynch in his lab at a major research university where instruments include high-tech microscopes and other equipment as well as facilities for growing and maintaining animal populations. Although your students might wish they had access to similar analytical tools, they probably don’t. Encourage your students use the information and materials to which they do have access to investigate learning and memory. Remind students that they might develop a device that will allow them to make observations or record data about the thinking brain.


Assemble Equipment and Materials

Many materials can be found in a classroom to help students investigate memory challenges. Suggestions include:

  • short text passages or poems
  • phone books
  • word or letter tiles
  • number cubes
  • vocabulary lists
  • nonsensical words
  • color tiles
  • digital pictures
  • sound samples
  • manipulatives with different textures
  • number puzzles
  • 2-dimensional geometric shapes
  • reflex hammer
  • stop watch


Manipulate Materials to Trigger Ideas: Allow students a brief time to examine and manipulate available materials. Doing so aids students in refining the direction of their investigation or prompts new ideas that should be recorded for future investigation. Because conversation is critical in the science classroom, allow students to discuss available materials and change their minds as their investigations evolve.


Safety Considerations: Foster and support a safe science classroom. While investigating the thinking brain,students should follow all classroom safety routines. Review safe use of tools and measurement devices as needed. Augment your own safety procedures with NSTA’s Safety Portal. [http://www.nsta.org/portals/safety.aspx]


Set the Stage

Use prompts, such as the following, to get students thinking about how they will investigate their challenge:

     - In the video, the big antenna and the long wire analogy helps to understand….

     - The brain is mysterious because….

     - One way we can tell if extraneous sounds make learning more difficult is….

     - Not being able to tell what is going on in the brain of someone attempting to learn a new task adds constraints like….

     - The number of repetitions that must take place when learning a new task can be determined by….

     - We can tell that a memory is becoming more secure by….

     - You can tell that synaptic communication is becoming stronger when….

A tool that would help to learn more about the brain’s vast communication network would….



Determine the appropriate level of guidance you need to offer based on your students’ knowledge, creativity, ability levels, and available materials. Review the rubric that will be used to assess their investigations.

A major constraint in any design investigation is time. Give students a clear understanding of how much time they will have to find a solution that will develop and test an efficient strategy for completing a learning and memory activity.



After demonstrating and communicating information backed by evidence to the class about their findings and reflecting on the findings of other groups, allow the class or small groups to go through a redesign process to improve their data collection. Encourage students to identify limitations of their investigative design and testing process. Students should also consider if there were variables that they did not identify earlier that had an impact on their investigations. It could also be beneficial to discuss unexpected results that were observed. Students should quickly make needed revisions. You might make suggestions to increase the difficulty of the challenge.



Build Science Literacy through reading and writing

Integrate English language arts standards for college and career readiness to help students become proficient in accessing complex informational text.


READ     Any good piece of writing must be carefully planned. Its internal segments must work together to produce meaning. According to Tim Shanahan, former Director of Reading for Chicago Public Schools, students must do “an intensive analysis of a text in order to come to terms with what it says, how it says it, and what it means.” [Reference: http://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/]


Provide students access to science and technical texts such as these:

     - Understanding Neurobiology through the Study of Addiction, pages 42–48 (http://science.education.nih.gov/supplements/nih2/addiction/guide/pdfs/entire.pdf)

     - Neurons, Synapses, Action Potentials, and Neurotransmission (http://www.mind.ilstu.edu/curriculum/neurons_intro/neurons_intro.php)

     - Learning & Memory: How Do We Remember and Why Do We Often Forget? (http://brainworldmagazine.com/learning-memory-how-do-we-remember-and-why-do-we-often-forget/)


Encourage close reading using strategies such as the following to help students identify the information they will use to develop a selected topic. Note that students will be more successful if they closely read each text more than once. For background on close reading, see the ASCD resource Closing in on Close Reading. [http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/dec12/vol70/num04/Closing-in-on-Close-Reading.asp]

  • Chunk Source Materials Break long reading passages into manageable chunks. Students might divide groups of related paragraphs by drawing a horizontal line between them. Students might write in the margin to the left of each chunk what its purpose is and why paragraphs are grouped together.
  • Box Quotations Have students identify sentences that they might later use in their writing. The adjacent margins of the text can be used to justify why the quotation was selected and explain its significance.


WRITE     After students have read texts cited above and watched the video closely you might give them a writing assignment that allows them to integrate the texts and video as they write about the aspects of learning and memory that interest them. Students should cite specific evidence-based research to support their analysis of the science and use precise details in their explanations and descriptions. Examples of writing prompts that integrate the video content with the text resources cited above include the following:

     - Write an explanation for a 10-year-old about how messages sensed in the environment are received and interpreted in the brain.

     - Develop a sequence that illustrates how learning occurs.

     - Compare and contrast the information gained from the video with that gained from one of the texts.

     - Integrate the text(s) with the video as they write about the connections between signal strength and memory formation.



Summary Activity

Increase retention of information with a brief, focused wrap-up.

Have students write or discuss one thing from the lesson that reinforces or expands on something they already knew. They might state their ideas as claims supported by evidence.




Next Generation Science Standards

Visit the URLs to review the supportive Science and Engineering Practices, Disciplinary Core Ideas, and Crosscutting Concepts for these connected Performance Expectations.

MS-LS1 From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes


MS-LS1-3. Use argument supported by evidence for how the body is a system of interacting subsystems composed of groups of cells.

MS-LS1-4. Use argument based on empirical evidence and scientific reasoning to support an explanation for how characteristic animal behaviors and specialized plant structures affect the probability of successful reproduction of animals and plants respectively.

MS-LS1-8. Gather and synthesize information that sensory receptors respond to stimuli by sending messages to the brain for immediate behavior or storage as memories.


MS-ETS1 Engineering Design


MS-ETS1-1. Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions.

MS-ETS1-2. Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.

MS-ETS1-3. Analyze data from tests to determine similarities and differences among several design solutions to identify the best characteristics of each that can be combined into a new solution to better meet the criteria for success.

MS-ETS1-4. Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool, or process such that an optimal design can be achieved.


HS-LS1 From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes


HS-LS1-2. Develop and use a model to illustrate the hierarchical organization of interacting systems that provide

specific functions within multicellular organisms.

HS-LS1-3. Plan and conduct an investigation to provide evidence that feedback mechanisms maintain homeostasis.


HS-ETS1 Engineering Design


HS-ETS1-1. Analyze a major global challenge to specify qualitative and quantitative criteria and constraints for solutions that account for societal needs and wants.

HS-ETS1-2. Design a solution to a complex real-world problem by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable problems that can be solved through engineering.

HS-ETS1-3. Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.

HS-ETS1-4. Use a computer simulation to model the impact of proposed solutions to a complex real-world problem with numerous criteria and constraints on interactions within and between systems relevant to the problem.


Common Core State Standards for ELA & Literacy in Science and Technical Subjects

Visit the URLs to find out more about how to support science literacy during science instruction.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading


1.   Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

6.   Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

7.   Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

8.   Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing


Visit the URL to review the supportive Science and Engineering Practices, Disciplinary Core Ideas, and Crosscutting Concepts for these connected Performance Expectations.

1.   Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

2.   Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

7.   Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

8.   Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.

9.   Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.


Assessment rubric for Inquiry Investigation


1 point

2 points

3 points

Initial challenge

Challenge was off topic, or was not researchable or testable.

Challenge was researchable or testable but too broad or not answerable by the chosen investigation.

Challenge was clearly stated, was researchable or testable, and was directly related to the investigation.

Investigation design

The design did not support a response to the challenge.

While the design supported the challenge, the procedure used to collect data (e.g., number of trials, or control of variables) was insufficient.

Variables were clearly identified and controlled as needed with steps and trials that resulted in data that could be used to solve the challenge.

Variables (if applicable)

Either the dependent or independent variable was not identified.

While the dependent and independent variables were identified, no controls were present.

Variables were identified and controlled in a way that resulting data could be analyzed and compared.

Safety procedures

Basic laboratory safety procedures were followed, but practices specific to the activity were not identified.

Basic laboratory safety procedures were followed but only some safety practices needed for this investigation were followed.

Appropriate safety procedures and equipment were used and safe practices adhered to.

Data and analysis (based on iterations)

Observations were not made or recorded, and data are unreasonable in nature, or do not reflect what actually took place during the investigation.

Observations were made but lack detail, or data appear invalid or were not recorded appropriately.

Detailed observations were made and data are plausible and recorded appropriately.


No claim was made or the claim had no relationship to the evidence used to support it.

Claim was related to evidence from investigation.

Claim was backed by investigative or research evidence.

Findings comparison

Comparison of findings was limited to a description of the initial challenge.

Comparison of findings was not supported by the data collected.

Comparison of findings included both group data and data collected by another resource.


Student reflection was limited to a description of the procedure used.

Student reflections were related to the initial problem.

Student reflections described at least one impact on thinking.

Close NBC Learn


If you are trying to view the videos from inside a school or university, your IT admin may need to enable streaming on your network. Please see the Internet Filtering section of our Technical Requirements page.


Videos on this page are not available on DVD at this time due to licensing restrictions on the footage.


Subscribers to NBC Learn may download videos and play them back without an internet connection. Please click here to find out more about subscribing or to sign up for a FREE trial (download not included in free trial).

Still have questions?
Click here to send us an email.

Close NBC Learn


The Science of the Olympic Winter Games videos are only available to visitors inside the United States due to licensing restrictions on the Olympics footage used in the videos.


If you are trying to view the videos from inside a school or university, your IT admin may need to enable streaming on your network. Please see the Internet Filtering section of our Technical Requirements page.


The Science of the Olympic Winter Games is not available on DVD at this time due to licensing restrictions on on Olympic footage.


Subscribers to NBC Learn may download videos and play them back without an internet connection. Please click here to find out more about subscribing or to sign up for a FREE trial (download not included in free trial).

Still have questions?
Click here to send us an email.

Close NBC Learn

Choose your product

NBC Learn K-12 product site
NBC Learn Higher Ed product site

For NBC Learn in Blackboard™ please log in to your institution's Blackboard™ web site and click "Browse NBC Learn"

Close NBC Learn

If you have received a new user registration code from your institution, click your product below and use the "Register now" link to sign up for a personal account.

NBC Learn K-12 product site
NBC Learn Higher Ed product site

For further assistance, please contact our NBC Learn Support Team and we'll be happy to assist you.

Start Your Free
Day Trial!