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


Students develop Science and Engineering Practices, using them to brainstorm and think critically about elements in the Mysteries of the Brain video series. Students build science literacy as they closely read technical texts and write using scientific information.

Introduction Notes:

NSF/NBC LEARN Mysteries of the Brain

Searching for Answers

STEM Lesson Plan for Grades 7–12

Developed by the National Science Teachers Association



About the Video

Mysteries of the Brain (MOTB): Searching for Answers focuses on questions and the search for answers as a scientific endeavor and summarizes the research presented in the series. The video introduces the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, a 20-year, nearly $1 billion research project that brings together scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and new technology to unlock the mysteries of the brain. The video gives an overview of the mysteries that remain and how, in the future, scientists may find answers to them.


Related Concepts

  • species
  • consciousness
  • brain functions
  • BRAIN Initiative
  • neurotechnologies
  • research
  • cells
  • neurons
  • neural impulses
  • general principles
  • neural network
  • diversity
  • collaboration


Brain Research—An Interdisciplinary Effort

MOTB: Searching for Answers emphasizes that the task of unlocking the secrets of the brain is so enormous that it requires the collaboration of scientists from different fields, such as engineering, biology, physics, mathematics, and psychology. This section in each lesson plan touches on just a few examples of how representatives of different fields contribute to the research.



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 and unanswered questions

Students might list and share questions that they still have about the brain.


President Obama and the BRAIN Initiative

Students could discuss/debate the usefulness of public funding for projects such as the BRAIN Initiative.


Funding the BRAIN Initiative and its research

Have students write a statement that explains why it is important for the BRAIN Initiative to be funded by both public and private organizations.


The basic components of the brain and a fundamental mystery

Students might develop and share analogies that describe a neural network composed of the building blocks of cells and neurons.


A solution to studying the complexity of the brain

Have students share from experience how they have taken a simpler approach to solve a problem, which led to general principles that help to understand a more complex problem.


Why collaboration is key

Students could explain how a recent scientific and/or mathematical collaboration resulted in positive outcomes.


How new technology will help

Have students make a prediction about new technology that will come out of the BRAIN Initiative.


Many questions

Dr. Sabine Kastner predicts that neuroscience in the 21st century will see tremendous discoveries. Students could make and share predictions of what these discoveries might be.


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.



Develop Science and Engineering Practices

After prompting to uncover what students already know, use video for a common background experience and follow with student action.


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

     - The brain controls…

     - Science concepts involved in the brain and its structure and function include…

     - Mathematics might be involved in brain study by…

     - Technologies that would aid brain study include…

     - Engineering design problems that might be solved with a better understanding of brain structure and function could include….


2.   Show the video and allow students to discuss their observations and questions. Use the prompt This video makes me think about…. Elicit observations about the work setting and the tasks carried out as well as the content.


3.   MOTB:Searching for Answers offers several vignettes that recap main points presented in the various installments of the Mysteries of the Brain series.NGSS’s Science and Engineering Practices provide a framework with which to explore the concepts presented in each brief scene. You might divide the class into eight teams and have each team focus on and present their STEM efforts for each section.


Engage in the Science and Engineering Practices

Scene One: The brain and unanswered questions: Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)


Students at any grade level should be able to ask questions of each other about the texts they read, the features of the phenomena they observe, and the conclusions they draw from their models or scientific investigations. For engineering, they should ask questions to define the problem to be solved and to elicit ideas that lead to the constraints and specifications for its solution. (NRC Framework 2012, p. 56)


Use the Practice: The video’s narrator informs us that because the brain is so complex, many questions about the brain remain unanswered. Have students identify a list of still-unanswered questions about the brain or ones that they have about the brain. They should then sort the questions into categories that might connect to problems to be solved. Students should be able to explain the rationale behind their organization. Asking questions can lead to further analysis and a better, more thorough understanding of concepts being examined.


Scene Two: President Obama and the BRAIN Initiative: Uncovering explanations (science) and designing solutions (engineering)


In engineering, the goal is to develop a design, which is an iterative and systematic process, as is the process of developing an explanation or a theory in science. Engineers’ activities, however, often have elements that are distinct from those of other scientists. These elements include specifying constraints and criteria for desired qualities of the solution, developing a design plan, producing and testing models or prototypes, selecting among alternative design features to optimize the achievement of design criteria, and refining design ideas based on the performance of a prototype or simulation. (NRC Framework, 2012, p. 68-69)


Use the Practice: Many things have been said or written about the BRAIN Initiative. Students might generate a list of constraints for the BRAIN Initiative. The list can include those involving funding, logistics of laboratory settings, the need for cross-discipline collaboration, and challenges of communicating scientific results to laypeople, among others. The constraints should be organized in a hierarchy by the difficulty they present in learning more about the brain. Figuring out how to get around road blocks that stand in the way of solving a problem can lead to a design solution that will have greater success.


Scene Three: The BRAIN Initiative and its research: Using mathematics and computational thinking


Although there are differences in how mathematics and computational thinking are applied in science and in engineering, mathematics often brings these two fields together by enabling engineers to apply the mathematical form of scientific theories and by enabling scientists to use powerful information technologies designed by engineers. Both kinds of professionals can thereby accomplish investigations and analyses and build complex models, which might otherwise be out of the question. (NRC Framework, 2012, p. 65)


Use the Practice: Mathematics is a tool that is key to understanding science and engineering. Students might point out the various ways that data are shown mathematically in the video and how the graphs, for example, show more than a list of numbers. They could also analyze the yearly or monthly expenditures that the BRAIN Initiative allocates for research.Given that monthly amount of money, students might suggest how the dollars could be used to contribute to brain research. 


Scene Four: The basic components of the brain and a fundamental mystery: Analyzing and interpreting data


Once collected, data must be presented in a form that can reveal any patterns and relationships and that allows results to be communicated to others. Because raw data as such have little meaning, a major practice of scientists is to organize and interpret data through tabulating, graphing, or statistical analysis. Such analysis can bring out the meaning—and relevance—of data so that the data may be used as evidence. Engineers make decisions based on evidence that a given design will work; they rarely rely on trial and error. Engineers often analyze a design by creating a model or prototype and collecting extensive data on how it performs, including under extreme conditions. Analysis of this kind of data not only informs design decisions and enables the prediction or assessment of performance but also helps define or clarify problems, determine economic feasibility, evaluate alternatives, and investigate failures. (NRC

Framework, 2012, p. 61-62)


Use the Practice: Students can manipulate data using tables, graphical representations, visualization, and statistical analysis. Dr. Orie Shafer of the University of Michigan identifies a fundamental mystery of the brain: How do networks of billions of cells interact to create a behavior? Have students gather information about some aspect of the functioning brain that is understood. Their task will be to create a graphic organizer that accounts for the significant features of this aspect of the brain.


Scene Five: A solution to studying the complexity of the brain: Developing and using models


Modeling can begin in the earliest grades, with students’ models progressing from concrete pictures and/or physical scale models (e.g., a toy car) to more abstract representations of relevant relationships in later grades, such as a diagram representing forces on a particular object in a system. (NRC Framework, 2012, p. 58)


Use the Practice: Dr. Melina Hale of the University of Chicago uses simpler organisms to help understand general principles of the nervous system of a wide diversity of animals. Students might develop a model to explain the neural pathways involved in the body’s response to a physical stimulus such as catching a ball. Models include physical replicas, diagrams, graphs, technical drawings, and computer simulations among others. If time allows, have students share models with the class and invite suggestions for improving them.


Scene Six: Why collaboration is key: Planning and carrying out investigations in groups with diverse but complementary expertise


Students should have opportunities to plan and carry out several different kinds of investigations during their K–12 years. At all levels, they should engage in investigations that range from those structured by the teacher—in order to expose an issue or question that they would be unlikely to explore on their own (e.g., measuring specific properties of materials)—to those that emerge from students’ own questions. (NRC Framework, 2012, p. 61)


Use the Practice: Have students select one of the mysteries of the brain that is yet to be solved. After finding out more about the mystery, they might put together a collaborative team to work towards solving some portion of the mystery. Students should identify each member of the team by her/his field and explain the unique benefits each offers in achieving a solution. Sometimes, developing a good team can be a sure step in solving a problem or designing a solution.


Scene Seven: New technology will help: Engaging in argument from evidence


The study of science and engineering should produce a sense of the process of argument necessary for advancing and defending a new idea or an explanation of a phenomenon and the norms for conducting such arguments. In that spirit, students should argue for the explanations they construct, defend their interpretations of the associated data, and advocate for the designs they propose. (NRC Framework, 2012, p. 73)


Use the Practice: Dr. Carlos Aizenman of Brown University believes that every time a new technology comes along, new knowledge will follow. Students might decide to agree or disagree with Dr. Aizenman and offer several pieces of evidence that support or refute him. The Next Generation Science Standards maintain that engagement in argumentation is critical for students to understand the culture that scientists live in. It also allows students to understand how science and engineering can be applied for the benefit of everyone.


Scene Eight: Many questions: Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information


Any education in science and engineering needs to develop students’ ability to read and produce domain-specific text. As such, every science or engineering lesson is in part a language lesson, particularly reading and producing the genres of texts that are intrinsic to science and engineering. (NRC Framework, 2012, p. 76)


Use the Practice: As the video is about to conclude, Dr. Sabine Kastner of Princeton University announces that although neuroscience is a young science there will be tremendous discoveries in the 21st century. Have students explore the current efforts of the BRAIN Initiative and make justifiable predictions that will flesh out Dr. Kastner’s glowingly optimistic remarks. Communicating clearly and persuasively is fundamental to the practices of science and engineering.



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 Obama's Brain-Mapping Project Matters (https://www.technologyreview.com/s/513011/why-obamas-brain-mapping-project-matters/)

     - Obama's BRAIN Initiative yields first study results(http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/04/30/us-science-robomouse-idUSKBN0NL23R20150430)

     - Obama's Brain Map Initiative Needs a Rethinking (http://www.livescience.com/28505-map-the-brain.html)

     - How Not to Build a Brain(http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2014/07/human_brain_project_and_brain_initiative_debate_why_not_build_a_brain.single.html)


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 left margin notes that compare the texts with the Searching for Answers video. Have students underline portions of the texts that support the neuroscience presented in the video. Students might circle passages that raise questions for them.
  • Make Predictions As students read the source materials they identify the main idea of each paragraph, chunk, or section. They then use the right 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.


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 the BRAIN Initiative 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:

     - Students might integrate the text(s) with the video as they write about the benefits of the BRAIN Initiative.

     - After viewing the video and taking a close look at the readings, students might explain why it is or is not important to map the brain.

     - Students might write about the challenges that face researchers and offer suggestions to how the challenges might be overcome.

     - Students might compare and contrast the approaches of the European and U.S. brain projects.

     - Students might select a brain mystery as presented in Searching for Answers (or one of the other videos in the series) and address how the BRAIN Initiative might lead to its resolution.



Summary Activity

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


Have students write/discuss the impact that the BRAIN Initiative might have on their lives. 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 Research Investigations



1 point

2 points

3 points

Initial questions

Group chose only 1 or 2 questions to consider and research.

Group chose 3 or 4 questions to consider and research.

Group chose at least 5 questions to consider and research.

References used

Group used only 1 reference in their study.

Group used only 2 references in their study.

Group used 3 or more references in their study.

References cited

Group incorrectly cited all of the references used in the study.

Group correctly cited some of the references used in the study.

Group correctly cited all of the references used in the study.


Groups neither effectively nor cooperatively presented findings to support their stance.

Groups effectively or cooperatively presented findings to support their stance.

Groups effectively and cooperatively presented findings to support their stance.


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

Claim was marginally supported by the group’s research evidence.

Claim was well supported by the group’s research evidence.

Findings comparison

Only a few members of the group constructively argued their stance.

Most members of the group constructively argued their stance.

All members of the group constructively argued their stance.


None of the reflections were related to the initial questions.

Some reflections were related to the initial questions.

All reflections were related to the initial questions.



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!