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


Students apply prior knowledge about brain structure and development as they extract information from video content. Students identify a challenge to explore about research environments or stimulus-response reactions and build science literacy as they closely read technical texts and write using scientific information.

Introduction Notes:

NSF/NBC LEARN Mysteries of the Brain

Building a Brain

STEM Lesson Plan for Grades 7–12

Developed by the National Science Teachers Association

About the Video

The brains of different species are very different but all brains develop in a similar way. Mysteries of the Brain (MOTB): Building a Brain explores understanding of brain development. It features Dr. Carlos Aizenman, a neuroscientist at Brown University. His lab studies the development of neural circuits and the role the external environment plays in shaping these circuits. He and his team use a combination of electrophysiology, molecular biology, behavior, and imaging.  By studying normal brain development, researchers can gain insight into what goes awry in disorders of brain development and clues about how to repair the brain following injury.


Related Concepts


  • behavior
  • brain
  • chemical signals
  • developmental patterns
  • electrical signals
  • electrophysiology
  • environment
  • nervous system
  • neural networks
  • neuron
  • neuroscientist
  • optic tectum
  • sensory processing areas
  • visual stimulus



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 development, such as how the external environment affects development:

  • Neuroscientists study development of neural circuits.
  • Psychologists study how behavior changes during development.
  • Engineers develop tools inspired by the design of the nervous system.


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



An animal’s thoughts, emotions, and behavior require a nervous system.

After students have viewed the clip, ask them to generate questions that, if answered, would help them to understand how powerful the brain is.


Neural circuits are sculpted when animals interact with their surrounding environment.

Students might put on their engineering hats and make a drawing that shows how they would investigate a brain being built as an organism interacts with its environment.

Students might also discuss how organisms can be compromised or limited in development if their surrounding environments are not rich with interactions.


Studying the optic tectum of tadpoles helps understand how environmental experience plays a role in the development of neural circuits.

Have students generate a list of questions they would ask to gain a basic understanding of the optic tectum.


Tadpoles are bred in Aizenman’s lab to observe how the tadpoles explore their environment.

After students have viewed the clip, have students summarize a brain building investigation they would undertake using tadpoles with the attributes as presented.


Tadpole dissection allows individual neurons to be probed.

Students could label a diagram that explains how a tool could be designed to amplify and measure electrical activity across the membrane of a cell.


A specific environment has been designed that allows tadpoles to be observed in a collision-avoidance experiment.

Have students compare and contrast the ways in which tadpole brain development is examined in this clip and the procedure followed in the previous clip.





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 understanding of MOTB: Building a Brain with the following prompts:

  • The brain plays a role in an organism’s actions by….
  • Brains of different kinds of organisms are similar in that….
  • You can tell a brain is developing when….
  • Ways that brains develop include….
  • Neural circuits are shaped or formed when….
  • It is important to explore brain development using a simple organism because….
  • An investigation that would allow us to understand how an organism responds to a visual stimulus might….


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

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.

  • In the video, students observed how tadpoles’ brains responded to a visual stimulus in a specific environment that was created for that purpose. Groups of students might research other simple organisms, like the tadpole, whose neural circuits will be activated when exposed to the appropriate stimulus (not necessarily a visual stimulus). Each group will select one organism to study. Their challenge will be to design a specific environment that will allow safe observation and study of how the organism reacts to a stimulus. Because engineers often face cost constraints, each team’s effort should include the cost of producing an actual prototype environment. Spark ideas with Invertebrate Nervous System. [https://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/invert.html]
  • For a hands-on experience, teams of students could investigate how earthworms respond to a stimulus. Stimuli that students might consider include odor, light, moisture, color, and texture. Insist that students demonstrate care with each living organism. You might remind them that worms breath through their wet skin and should be kept moist. They should periodically place their worms on a moist paper towel or in a shallow pan of water.


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 their 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.


Point out to students that the video discussed genetic and cellular mechanisms shared across species that program the basic structure and formation of a brain during the development of a fetus or embryo. The building blocks of brains (genes, neurons, glia, circuits, and networks) are similar across the animal kingdom, and by studying how these brain components work in one system (organism/species), we can often gain conceptual insights into how the human brain functions. A classic example is the Lim1 mutant mouse—this mouse lacks a gene that is required for the formation of forebrain in mammals; mutants do not form forebrains.


Investigate, Compare, and Revise

The video presented how brains are built beginning in the earliest stages of life as organisms interact with their surrounding environment. The video showed a university lab, well-stocked with equipment and materials. Encourage your students to use the information and materials to which they do have access to investigate brain development.


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:


  • computers with Internet access
  • cell phones and/or digital cameras
  • flashlight
  • transparent colored plastic sheets
  • recorded sounds played through cell phone speakers
  • small metal implements/

instruments to tap to make sounds

  • materials to gently touch earthworms
    • feather
    • pipe cleaners
    • blades of fresh grass
    • blunt nails
    • thread or light twine
    • paper towels
    • eyedroppers
    • cotton swabs
    • aromatic liquids
    • shallow pans
    • potting soil
    • small portions of different food stuffs
    • several different grades of sandpaper
    • cloth samples with different textures



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 building a 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:

  • One way we can determine how various stimuli change the behavior of an organism is….
  • Constraints or limits to observing brain development include….
  • Characteristics of an organism that would make it a good candidate for observation include….
  • Sensory inputs that might work as well as visual inputs include….
  • The optimal location of the target can be determined by….
  • Characteristics of the lab/learning environment that would support our efforts include….
  • Team roles required to successfully complete our task will 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 specific environment or make observations on an organism.



After demonstrating and communicating evidence-based information 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:

  • Why Are Animals Used to Study the Brain? [http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=10089&page=11]
  • Child Development Fact Sheet: Stages of Brain Development [http://www.cyf.govt.nz/documents/info-for-caregivers/fds-cd-stages-of-brain-dec11-hu.pdf]
  • Translating Developmental Time Across Mammalian Species [http://people.psych.cornell.edu/~blf2/pdfs/BEC,RBD,BLFNeurosci01.pdf]


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 MOTB: Building a Brain. Have students underline portions of the texts that present the science of brain development. Students might circle passages that raise questions for them.
  • 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 brain development 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:

  • Create a timeline of events that depicts brain development in the womb and through age 3.
  • Use evidence from the video and the articles to answer the question: Why are animals used to study the brain?


Summary Activity

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


3 – 2 – 1: Students write three things they learned about brain development, two questions they have about brain development, and one thing they want their teacher to know about the lesson.




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 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.

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