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


Students apply prior knowledge about emotions as they extract information from video content. Students identify a challenge to explore about the emotions’ roots in the nervous system and build science literacy as they closely read technical texts and write using scientific information.

Introduction Notes:

NSF/NBC LEARN Mysteries of the Brain

Emotional Brain

STEM Lesson Plan for Grades 7–12

Developed by the National Science Teachers Association

About the Video

Mysteries of the Brain (MOTB): Emotional Brain focuses on efforts to understand how the brain plays a role in forming emotions and coordinating the body’s reactions to emotions. It features Dr. Kevin LaBar of Duke University who researches cognition-emotion interactions in the human brain. The video highlights how certain parts of the brain process emotions and interact with many other parts of the brain. Research shows that the same parts of the brain are used for the processing of both positive and negative emotions.


Related Concepts


  • behavior
  • emotions
  • emotional triggers
  • flight or fight response
  • hypothalamus
  • innate emotions
  • limbic systems
  • motivation
  • reinforcement
  • sensory information
  • stimulus-response reaction
  • survival circuit


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 how they are related to emotions:

  • Psychiatrists study impairments in the ability to recognize facial emotions.
  • Sociologists explore the role emotions play in social life.
  • Zoologists and behavioral scientists examine how elephant emotions are the basis of morality.



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 struggle to understand emotions.

Students might make a drawing that illustrates an animal experiencing a specific emotion. A caption could identify what the emotion is a response to and how it might be useful to the animal.


Environment information leads to changes in the body.

Students could create a bulleted list that identifies the steps from external stimuli to a change in an animal’s body.


How the limbic system works.

Students might briefly discuss what would happen if a body was experiencing an emotion and the autonomic nervous system (ANS) didn’t kick in to do its job.

2:12–2: 42

Emotions that cause body changes range from very simple to the abstract

Have students brainstorm what they have identified as the far more complex emotions that humans and other animals possess.


Researchers attempt to understand and identify the regions of the brain that store memories that cause emotional responses.

Have students explain how a memory from their past might influence their emotions today. They might contrast how emotions resulting from memories feel the same or different from emotions generated by a present stimulus.


LaBar and his team use a high-tech virtual reality room and basic video and images to study how the brain and body respond to various situations..

Groups of students might take turns recognizing emotions. One student would act out an emotion and the rest of the group would try to identify it.


Research may lead to greater understanding.

Students could write a 30-word summary of what they know about emotions.


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 the Video

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


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

  • Emotions that many animals share include….
  • Technology helps understand emotions because….
  • Things that affect emotions include….
  • Things that emotions affect include….
  • Ways emotions can be detected include….
  • Emotions and feelings are the same/not the same because….
  • Emotions matter because….


2.   Show the video and allow students to discuss their observations and questions. Allow students to talk about aspects of emotions that might be examined in the classroom. Possibilities include:

  • socioemotional clues
  • shared emotional responses
  • technology that could be adapted to learn about emotions
  • evolution and emotions
  • animal and human emotions


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

Stimulate small-group discussion with the prompt: This video makes me think about…. Encourage students to outline investigations they might undertake. If needed, direct student thinking along the following lines.

  • Design a device/app/instrument/survey to identify which emotions we do share and the physical responses that result from them.
  • Explore how to examine whether emotions are more helpful or harmful to an animal’s survival.
  • Use words or images to determine if people perceive emotions in the same way and how culture might play a role.
  • Determine if common situations cause common emotions.
  • Determine what senses play a role in emotions.
  • Explore if colors, textures, and smells cause changes in emotion.
  • Plan and design an investigation that explores the relationship between emotions and feelings.
  • Develop a virtual reality gaming simulation or an avatar-based simulation.
  • Develop a scenario and act it out, such as a situation in which the teacher might announce a “pop quiz.”


Ask groups to choose one challenge and rephrase it in a way that it can be solved through media research or hands-on testing using available materials. 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. Because emotional research requires sophisticated equipment, it might be more accessible for students to use interviews or observational protocols to understand these connections.


Point out to students that the video discussed how the brain is composed of different systems (e.g., emotional, stress, motor, etc.) distributed in different parts of the brain. An animal’s behavior is the final product of coordination between and integration across these distinct systems. Moreover, subcomponents/elements (different cells releasing different chemical signals) from the same part of the brain can drive opposite emotions.


Investigate, Compare, and Revise

The video presents post-graduate students examining emotions using a virtual reality room. Although your students might wish they had access to similar instruments, they probably don’t. Encourage your students to use the information and materials to which they do have access to study the perceiving brain.


Assemble Equipment and Materials

Many materials can be found in a classroom or at home to help students investigate challenges related to brain structure and function. Suggestions include:

  • index cards
  • hand mirrors
  • video or cell phone cameras
  • audio recorders
  • assorted video clips showing various emotions
  • assorted markers or crayons
  • equipment to measure temperature, heart rate, and other biometrics such as a sphygmomanometer (blood pressure gauge), clear plastic with grid to measure eye pupil diameter, etc.


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 emotional 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 problem:

  • A scenario that I think would produce strong emotions is….
  • When I encounter overt emotions I….
  • My emotions seem different/the same as other people because ….
  • Although the accepted list of basic emotions is disputed everyone seems to have….
  • It is difficult to identify other people’s emotions because….
  • Technology can help identify/explore emotions by….
  • Constraints that limit observing emotions include….
  • Unanswered questions that might limit my investigation include….



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 design a solution that will allow them to explore emotions.



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:

  • 5 Simple Lessons for Social and Emotional Learning for Adults (http://www.edutopia.org/blog/five-social-emotional-learning-lessons-for-adults-elena-aguilar)
  • Review—The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life(http://metapsychology.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_doc.php?type=book&id=428&cn=139)
  • Joe LeDoux: The Emotional Brain, Gumbo and the Amygdaloids (http://emotionresearcher.com/interview-with-joe-ledoux/)


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: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/dec12/vol70/num04/Closing-in-on-Close-Reading.aspx)

  • Short Summaries In the margins to the left of each paragraph students might demonstrate their understanding by writing a short summary of the paragraph. The margins to the right of each paragraph could be used to write questions that are raised by the information presented in the paragraph.
  • Highlight and Circle Have students use a highlighter to mark sentences in which the author makes a claim or offers data to support a position.  Students could circle key terms that are found throughout the text or are defined by the author.


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 emotions 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 of why neuroscientists seem to study the emotion of fear the most.
  • Explore why Dr. LaBar thinks that experiencing an emotion is a puzzle about consciousness instead of one about emotions.
  • Discuss the benefits of developing emotional awareness.
  • Select and support a side in the debate about whether animals should be used in the study of emotions.



Summary Activity

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


3 – 2 – 1: Students write three main points they learned about emotions, two points from the lesson that they disagree with, and one question that arose from the lesson or their readings.




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-LS4 Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity


MS-LS4-6. Use mathematical representations to support explanations of how natural selection may lead to increases and decreases of specific traits in populations over time.


 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-ETS1-2. 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 problem

Problem had only one solution, was off topic, or was not researchable or testable.

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

Problem 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 initial question or provide a solution to the problem.

While the design supported the initial problem, 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 answer the question or solve the problem.

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 problem.

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.

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