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


Students apply prior knowledge about perception as they extract information from video content. Students identify a challenge to explore about aspects of visual perception and build science literacy as they closely read technical texts and write using scientific information.

Introduction Notes:

NSF/NBC LEARN Mysteries of the Brain

Perceiving Brain

STEM Lesson Plan for Grades 7–12

Developed by the National Science Teachers Association 


About the Video


 “Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and
calls the adventure Science.”
—Edwin Powell Hubble


The focus of Mysteries of the Brain (MOTB): Perceiving Brain is on how the brain enables perception. Dr. Sabine Kastner, a Princeton University neuroscientist, and her team are studying the process by which the brain’s visual system can make sense of complex images. While a human subject completes a simple task, Dr. Kastner’s team digitally peeks inside the brain to see what’s going on. To be able to better understand the information that can be gathered, neuroscientists are collaborating with mathematicians, statisticians, physicists, and other scientists to create models of the complex neural networks they have observed.


Related Concepts


  • electrical impulses
  • facial recognition
  • functional magnetic resonance imaging
  • information processing
  • memory
  • process of sight and structure of the eye
  • sense organs and the stimuli they sense
  • thalamus and other parts of the brain



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 the senses and perception:

  • Bioengineers and physicists explore how orofacial behaviors, or those involving the mouth, jaw, and other parts of the face, with emphasis on structures such as whiskers, collect and interpret environmental data through actively moving sensors.
  • Anthropologists take a cultural approach to the study of the senses arguing that perception is not only a physical but also a psychological act.
  • Chemical engineers use intrinsic signal optical imaging to investigate responses of the primary visual cortex of cats.



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



Senses and survival

Have students make a bulleted list of practices they follow to isolate the sights, smells, tastes, textures, and sounds with which they are constantly bombarded.


Introduction of Dr. Kastner

Students might come up with three to five questions that they would like to ask Dr. Kastner.


How vision works

Have students evaluate the analogy that compares the retina to a digital camera’s memory card.

2:04 –3:08

How the brain determines which visual information is important

Students could compare and contrast looking at street scenes and looking at faces.


Neural networks and perception

Students might create a series of cartoon cells that depict how it is beneficial to quickly process visual information and connect it with an appropriate behavior.  


Mathematical and computational models help understand the role biological systems play in perception

Dr. Kastner mentions several different professions in this brief segment. Have students speculate about what contribution each profession makes to the creation of theoretical models of complex neural networks.



Students could identify additional problems involving the brain and senses that might be studied


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:

  • One experience I have had with the sense of vision is….
  • Something I know about or have experienced with an MRI is…
  • The parts of the brain involved in vision include….
  • Animals make sense out of the many visual clues they receive every second by….


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 with the following prompts:

  • The pathway from light reflected off an object to the body’s motor response involves….
  • Ways scientists study brain activity associated with vision include….
  • The eye is analogous to a camera in that….
  • Scientists think that more than one area of the brain is involved in vision because….


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, show The Monkey Business Illusion (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGQmdoK_ZfY) as a way to spark ideas or direct student thinking along the following lines.

  • Students might examine peripheral vision for both visual acuity and perception of colors.
  • Research on human binocular vision functions would allow students to examine how the brain makes one picture out of two images or its role in depth perception.
  • Students could explore how depth perception works and its role in interpreting complex visual spaces.
  • Students might explore the various kinds of light that organisms perceive or how the relative number of rods and cones in the eye varies with species.
  • Students might explore optical illusions and how the brain is tricked into perceiving something different from reality.
  • Students might explore Where’s Waldo–type images and determine the most successful ways to find Waldo or another specific object.


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 that even though we have mapped key areas of the brain that are the sites of primary sensory processing, we still do not have coherent explanations of coding in the brain. A need exists for computational modeling to generate testable hypotheses concerning higher-level information processing in the brain. Humans and other animals smell, taste, and feel, and some even sense magnetic fields in the environment. Organisms use all of their sensory information to construct an image of the world around them.


Investigate, Compare, and Revise

The video presents Dr. Sabine Kastner, a Princeton University neuroscientist, and her team studying how the brain’s visual system can discriminate the important information needed to complete a simple task. They use a magnetic resonance imaging device to aid their efforts. Encourage your students use the information and materials to which they have access to make direct observations.


Assemble Equipment and Materials

Many materials can be found in a classroom to help students investigate challenges in perception. Suggestions include:

For exploring binocular vision

  • paper tubes of various sizes, lengths, and openings (or paper to make them) to explore binocular vision
  • white screen, poster, or wall on which to study how each eye perceives light
  • small hand-held mirrors
  • objects to place at varying distances to relate binocular vision to depth perception


For exploring depth perception

  • plastic cups in which to drop objects when exploring depth perception
  • eye patch with which to cover one eye when investigating depth perception
  • meter sticks or ring stands to set drop height
  • small rubber balls or other safe objects to drop



For exploring color perception and night vision

  • crayons or other objects in primary colors and neon colors
  • Ishihara color blindness test plates
  • locations that can be dimmed to near darkness
  • toy night vision goggles


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 perceiving 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:

  • When the brain combines the images from both eyes it can be fooled by….
  • An examination of visual perception would….
  • Visual perception could be improved by….
  • Factors involved in color and depth perception involve….
  • Depth perception requires both eyes because….
  • Visual perception and visual acuity are not the same because….
  • Visual perception skills can 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 investigate a single aspect of how the brain perceives the environment.



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:

  • How Your Brain Tracks Moving Objects
  • Eye movements and perception: A selective view (http://jov.arvojournals.org/article.aspx?articleid=2191910)
  • How We See: The First Steps of Human Vision (http://www.accessexcellence.org/AE/AEC/CC/vision_background.php)


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]


    • 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 writing’s audience?
    • Purpose – What is the purpose of the source material? 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?
    • Highlight and Circle Have students use a highlighter to mark sentences in which the author makes a claim or offers data to support a position. Students could circle key terms that are found throughout the text or are defined by the author.



WRITE     After students have read texts cited above and watched the video closely you might give them a writing assignment that allows them to integrate the texts and video as they write about the aspects of how we perceive moving objects 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 a science article for a newspaper that informs others who may have limited understanding of the topic.
  • Develop a sequence that illustrates how vision results in an animal’s actions.
  • Compare and contrast the information gained from the video with that gained from one of the texts.
  • Write a detailed script that could be used to program the actions of a predator in its ecosystem.



Summary Activity

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


Remind students that main ideas are the most important concepts they should remember. Then, have students work in pairs to create a fictional tweet about the main ideas of the lesson. The tweet must be 140 characters or less, so students should choose their words carefully. Ask for volunteers to share their tweets with the whole group.




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 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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