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


Students apply prior knowledge about the nervous system as they extract information from video content. Students identify a challenge to explore about comparative anatomy and function among animal nervous systems and build science literacy as they closely read technical texts and write using scientific information.

Introduction Notes:

NSF/NBC LEARN Mysteries of the Brain

Evolving 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): Evolving Brain is the evolution of the nervous system in animal species. In most animals, the center of the nervous system is the brain, and the brain of most animals share basic common functions. This video features Dr. Melina E. Hale, neurobiologist at the University of Chicago.


Related Concepts


  • evolution
  • brain structure
  • comparative neuroanatomy
  • electrochemical pulses
  • nervous systems
  • neural circuitry
  • neuron types (projection neurons, interneurons)
  • sensory receptors





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 evolution:

  • Paleontologists study changes in brain volume through evolutionary time.
  • Neurobiologists explore how changes in cortical microstructure are important in significant evolutionary shifts in cognition.
  • Anthropologists study how brain functions are conserved across the animal kingdom.





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 brain has been evolving for a long time.

In their journals, have students write evidence that supports that the brain is changing or evolving. Students might write down how they think the brain works before they watch the video.


Introduction to neurobiologist Melina Hale and her work.

Students might write down questions they would want to ask Melina Hale based on her introduction and opening comments.


Messages traveling through a neural circuit can cause motion.

Have students draw a simple animal and its nervous system.


Why zebra fish larvae are perfect for studying neural circuits.

Have students brainstorm other organisms and identify the reasons why they might be useful for studying neural circuits.


New technologies help scientists study neural circuits.

Have students compare the microscopes in the video to those they may have used in class.


Students could discuss and develop circuits designed to solve problems, such as emission of a motor output in response to a sensory input


The “startle circuit” allows animals to respond quickly.

Have students discuss the startle circuit and the reasons it is being used. Students might identify other animal responses that are similar to the startle circuit.


What a simple neural circuit can tell about evolution.

Students could identify areas in which study of something simple helps to understand the complex.





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:

  • If you were a neurobiologist you might study evolution of the brain by….
  • The parts of a nervous system include….
  • Scientists study the brains of simple organisms because….
  • Evidence that one could use to claim that communication technologies have evolved over time includes….
  • To say something is evolving means….
  • That startle circuits are present in many different kinds of animals reflects….
  • Study of animals that have changed very little over geologic time gives clues because….
  • Constraints that limit the study of nervous systems include….
  • Evolution explains the parts of the brain devoted to a particular task because….


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.   Explore understanding of video content with the following prompts:

  • Knowing their location helps animals survive because….
  • The evolution of avoidance of danger is a benefit because….
  • New technology that could aid in the investigation of brain evolution might include….
  • Constraints that limit continued evolution of brains might be overcome by….
  • If the brain were to stop evolving, then….
  • The observation of brain activity could be made more efficient by….


4.   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.

  • Evaluate ways to identify new technology to help Dr. Hale in her research.
  • Design a different approach to study how brains have evolved.
  • Examine how the evolution of brain responses such as the reward/punishment system help animals to survive. This might be contrasted with internal motivation and ethics in humans.
  • Make claims about the environmental stimuli that might impact evolution of animals’ ability to track their location in relation to their surroundings or other organisms.


Ask groups to choose one challenge and rephrase it in a way that 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 how brain functions are conserved across the animal kingdom using the startle reflex as an example. The startle response and many principles of neural circuit function that underlie it are conserved across species, which allows much to be learned about basic brain function and behavior by studying simpler, non-human brains. Study of neural circuits underlying a basic behavior in the simplest and oldest surviving species can yield answers about the evolving brain.


Investigate, Compare, and Revise

The video presented some tools in a neurobiologist’s lab. 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 the evolving brain.


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 evolving 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 solve their problem:

  • One way we can explore the evolution of the sense of location is….
  • Other responses such as the startle circuit studied by Dr. Hale could be found by….
  • Some limitations to future evolution of the brain include….
  • One approach that could determine whether brain disorders might result from the process of evolution or from other factors might include...
  • The efficiency of brain activity observations could be improved by….



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:

  • Is the human brain still evolving? [http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/brain-evolution.htm]
  • The Awesomely Evolved Human Brain [http://www.scholastic.com/smp/pdfs/nida/NIDA12-INS1_Stu_Mag-spread.pdf]
  • Brain's fear center is equipped with built-in suffocation sensor [http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/11/091125134651.htm]
  • Prominent scientists sign declaration that animals have conscious awareness, just like us [http://io9.com/5937356/prominent-scientists-sign-declaration-that-animals-have-conscious-awareness-just-like-us]


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]

  • Number and Take Notes As students read, have them number each paragraph. Students could make margin notes that compare the texts with the video for The Evolving Brain. Have students underline portions of the texts that present the science of brain evolution. Students might circle passages that raise questions for them.
    • Speaker – What did the expert voices say in the source materials?
    • Occasion – In what context will the source materials be integrated?
    • Audience  – How will the information gleaned from the source materials meet the needs of the writer’s audience?
    • Purpose  – What is the purpose of the source materials? What does the writer want the audience to think or do after reading the completed assignment?
    • Subject  – Do the writing efforts address the topic? Is the writing as specific as it needs to be?  Do the internal parts of the writing support the overall message?


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 brain evolution 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:

  • Develop a flowchart that highlights the evolution of the brain.
  • Write a technology-specific nonfiction piece that explores evolution of the brain beyond biology and into the realm of machines.
  • Compare and contrast the information gained from the video with that gained from one of the texts.
  • Summarize the relationship between and future impact of a brain-evolved acid sensor and the increase in carbon dioxide and panic attacks.



Summary Activity

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


Have students explain how their point of view has changed because of this lesson. They might do this verbally or in a few sentences.




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.


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!