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


Students apply prior knowledge about brain function and computers as they extract information from video content. Students identify a challenge to explore about devices that can be controlled via a brain-computer interface and build science literacy as they closely read technical texts and write using scientific information.

Introduction Notes:

NSF/NBC LEARN Mysteries of the Brain

Brain-Computer Interface

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): Brain-Computer Interface is on how studies of the brain can lead to new thinking and to developing brain-inspired designs and building so-called intelligent robots. It features Dr. Rajesh Rao, a neuroengineer at the University of Washington. Dr. Rao and his team use a technique that involves recording signals from the brain to understand how the brain communicates with other neural networks in the body. This can lead to highly innovative inventions that alter lives in unexpected ways, such as the development of neuroprosthetics, which are brain-based prosthetic devices.


Related Concepts


  • brain-computer interface (BCI)
  • prosthetics
  • chemical signals
  • electrical signals
  • neural networks
  • neural oscillations
  • algorithms
  • electroencephalogram (EEG)
  • electrode
  • electrocorticography



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, memory, development, and control:

  • Computer scientists, mathematicians, and engineers consider how the development of brain-computer interfaces can improve quality of life.
  • Neuroscientists and engineers investigate sensorimotor learning and control.
  • Biomedical engineers create retinal implants, prosthetic limbs, and other prostheses.
  • Neurologists take advantage of advances in neuroscience and technology to restore neural function. 



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



Introduction to brain-computer interface (BCI)

Students identify the benefits of playing a video game using only the brain as a controller and how these benefits could have practical applications.


Introduction to Dr. Rajesh Rao

Have students script a five-minute chat they would have with Dr. Rao to learn as much as they could about neuroengineering.


How the brain communicates with the body

Have students draw and label an example of a way in which the brain controls the body.


How neurons communicate with one another and can be used to control machines

Have students generate a brief description of a useful device that could be controlled by the brain and how it would be beneficial.


Computers can use algorithms to manipulate an artificial device

Have students compare and contrast what a device is versus an algorithm.


How Dr. Rao and his team explore the brain-computer interface

Have students briefly identify the positive aspects of Dr. Rao’s approach to developing brain-computer interfaces that use nonverbal communication.


Electrocorticography measures signals directly from the surface of the brain

Have students briefly identify the positive aspects of electrocorticography.





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:

  • I have learned about brain-computer interface, or BCI, from….
  • Actions that devices connected to brain-computer interfaces can do include….
  • The brain-computer interface assists….
  • I would / would not want to have my brain interfaced with a computer because….
  • Ethical concerns raised by interfacing human brains with computers include….
  • Components that could be used to make brain-computer-controlled devices can be found by….
  • The design of devices controlled by brain-computer interfaces are based on simple machines because….
  • Constraints that limit brain-computer interfaces include….
  • If I were a [scientist, patient, hospital administrator, or doctor], I would have concerns about... and would advocate for….


2.   Show the video and allow students to discuss their observations and questions. Elicit observations about the two types of brain-computer interfaces and the different devices that they control.


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 one another with questions about effective strategies for interfacing the brain with computers and brainstorm investigations that might follow. The advanced nature of this topic may require that students have time to research the topic in depth. Potential areas student might be interested in investigating include:

  • The design of different external and internal brain-computer interfaces
  • The range of complexity of brain-computer interfaces
  • The types of devices that, to date, have been controlled by the brain
  • How repeating tasks or changing steps in doing a task impacts the signals that need to be sent from the brain to a computer-controlled device
  • How (if your school participates in a robotics curriculum) the program that controls a robotic device replicates what is done in brain-computer interfaces
  • Specific tasks that a person might need help with, how those might vary between a quadriplegic and a paraplegic, for example, and thus how the supportive brain-controlled device might vary


Stimulate small-group discussion with the prompt: This video makes me think about…. Encourage students to outline investigations they might undertake. Guide students to identify a particular task and then work to create a device that could be manipulated by the BCI to do the task. If needed, direct student thinking along the following lines.

  • Using simple machines to model the functionality of a brain-computer interface controlled device, such as moving a object through a defined path
  • Watching the Brain-Computer Interface video from 3:58–4:02 and identifying the device’s components and the actions needed to move the ball from one cup to the other
  • Researching readily available components and using them to design a useful device that could be controlled by a brain-computer interface (Remind students that they will have to include in their design the device that will communicate with the computer.)


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 how studies of the brain often lead to new ways of thinking and implementing designs and engineering. This can lead to highly innovative inventions that alter our lives in unexpected ways. For example, our understanding of neural circuits has led to the development of neuroprosthetics—brain-based devices that help people with paralysis.


Investigate, Compare, and Revise

The video presents Dr. Rajesh Rao in his lab at a major research university using an EEG cap to process information from a student’s brain. He also explains how the same information can be obtained through electrocorticography. Although your students might wish they had access to similar experimental tools, they probably don’t. Encourage your students to use the information and materials to which they do have access to investigate brain-computer interfaces. Remind students that they might develop a device that will allow them to make observations on how brain-controlled devices might work.




Assemble Equipment and Materials

Many materials can be found in a classroom to help students investigate brain-computer interface challenges. Suggestions include:


  • simple machines
  • pulleys
  • levers
  • screws
  • slotted wheels and axels
  • spring scales
  • weights
  • nuts and bolts
  • rubber bands
  • string and rope
  • springs
  • hinges
  • online and physical catalogs for scientific, robotics, and technology supplies
  • computers
  • digital pictures
  • smart phone cameras
  • stop watch
  • glue and tape
  • materials of different textures that might aid a device in picking up objects
  • cardboard



Manipulate Materials to Trigger Ideas: Allow students a brief time to examine and manipulate available materials. Doing so often 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 brain-computer interfaces,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 conduct their research:

  • In the video, observing moving components of the robotic arm helps to understand….
  • The tasks to be completed by a brain-computer interface-controlled device help to determine….
  • The tasks to be completed by a brain-computer interface-controlled device could be replicated by simple machines if….
  • It is possible to identify the component parts and their functions in a brain-computer interface-controlled device by….
  • In order to design a brain-computer interface-controlled device from existing, readily available components, you would have to….
  • Cables in a computer interface-controlled device have characteristics such as….
  • You can tell that a brain-computer interface is efficient when….
  • A tool that would help us to learn more about brain-computer interfaces would be….



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 interface or make observations about a brain-computer interface-controlled device.



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

  • placing range of motion restrictions
  • placing total expenditure limits
  • establishing a minimum weight limit that a model brain-computer interfaced device must pick up or move
  • changing the task that a brain-computer interfaced device must complete




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:

  • Paralyzed man regains voluntary leg movement with electrode array implant[http://www.gizmag.com/paralyzed-walk-electrode-array-implant/18681/]
  • Quadriplegic Woman Moves Robot Arm With Her Mind [http://www.livescience.com/25600-quadriplegic-mind-controlled-prosthetic.html]



  • Paralyzed man drinks first beer in 12 years by moving robotic arm with his brain [http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/206271-paralyzed-man-drinks-first-beer-in-12-years-by-moving-robotic-arm-with-his-brain] (Note: This article makes a small reference to the consumption of alcohol. Be sure to preview this article to see if it will be appropriate to use in your situation.)


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]

  • Generate questions Before students make predictions they might generate questions based on the reading or video.
  • Make Predictions As students read the source materials they identify the main idea of each paragraph, chunk, or section. They then use the margins to record a prediction for what will come in the next paragraph, chunk, or section. When rereading each source material, students might place a check beside predictions that are correct.
  • 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.


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 a brain-computer interface 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 the local newspaper about how the brain could communicate with a prosthetic device in a useful manner.
  • Make a bulleted list of potentially helpful brain-controlled prosthetic devices that would aide in improving quality of life.
  • Integrate the text(s) with the video to compare and contrast the advantages and disadvantages of BCIs that are worn externally with those that are implanted in the brain.
  • Write persuasively to a doctor about why the technology presented in the articles should be made available to people without disabilities.
  • Draw a picture or cartoon that captures the main ideas that you have learned and the questions that you have developed.


Students should cite specific textual/video evidence to support their analysis of the science and use precise details in their explanations and descriptions.





Summary Activity

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


Have students write and share a summary paragraph citing specific examples of what was learned.




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-LS1-8. 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-ETS1-2. 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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