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The Brain in Science Education: What Should Everyone Learn?

Cour­tesy of the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Davis, Cen­ter for Neuroscience

What should every­one learn about the brain?

At the national level, the Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence (AAAS) describes what adults should know in its sem­i­nal work Sci­ence for All Americans.[1] AAAS also rec­om­mends learn­ing goals for K-12 stu­dents in its Bench­marks for Sci­ence Literacy[2,3], and Atlas of Sci­ence Literacy[4,5], and the National Research Coun­cil (NRC) offers a sim­i­lar set of goals in its National Sci­ence Edu­ca­tion Standards.[6] States and school dis­tricts use the AAAS and NRC rec­om­men­da­tions as a basis for the design of their own stan­dards, which then inform the devel­op­ment of cur­ricu­lum and assess­ment mate­ri­als (those com­mer­cially devel­oped as well as those devel­oped with grant funds). In addi­tion, the neu­ro­science com­mu­nity has devel­oped its own set of core con­cepts that K-12 stu­dents and the gen­eral pub­lic should know about the brain and ner­vous sys­tem and has cor­re­lated those con­cepts to the national standards.[7]

Between the AAAS and NRC rec­om­men­da­tions, there are some areas of broad con­sen­sus on what stu­dents should know. Accord­ing to AAAS’s Bench­marks and Atlas, for exam­ple, stu­dents in the ele­men­tary to mid­dle school grades should under­stand the fol­low­ing ideas:

  • The brain enables human beings to think and sends mes­sages to other body parts to help them work properly.
  • The brain gets sig­nals from all parts of the body telling it what is hap­pen­ing in each part. The brain also sends sig­nals to parts of the body to influ­ence what they do.
  • Inter­ac­tions among the senses, nerves, and brain make pos­si­ble the learn­ing that enables human beings to pre­dict, ana­lyze, and respond to changes in their environments.[8]

The National Research Council’s Stan­dards offers very sim­i­lar con­cepts in the fol­low­ing knowl­edge statements:

  • Inter­nal cues (such as hunger) and exter­nal cues (such as changes in the envi­ron­ment) influ­ence the behav­ior of indi­vid­ual organ­isms. Humans and other organ­isms have senses that help them detect inter­nal and exter­nal cues.
  • All organ­isms must be able to obtain and use resources, grow, repro­duce, and main­tain sta­ble inter­nal con­di­tions when liv­ing in a con­stantly chang­ing exter­nal environment.
  • Reg­u­la­tion of an organism’s inter­nal envi­ron­ment involves sens­ing that envi­ron­ment and chang­ing phys­i­o­log­i­cal activ­i­ties to keep con­di­tions within the range required to survive.[9]

For high school stu­dents, both the AAAS and the NRC learn­ing goals include the role of the ner­vous sys­tem in the rapid trans­mis­sion of infor­ma­tion through­out the body through elec­tro­chem­i­cal sig­nals. Some but not all of these ideas are also present in the most recent col­lege– and career-readiness stan­dards for sci­ence devel­oped by the Col­lege Board.[10]

Beyond the basic but impor­tant con­cepts about the struc­ture and func­tion of the brain and the ner­vous sys­tem, only AAAS has spec­i­fied any fur­ther knowl­edge in this area as essen­tial to sci­ence lit­er­acy. For exam­ple, AAAS rec­om­mends that an under­stand­ing of men­tal health—including ideas about the mind/body rela­tion­ship, fac­tors that shape behav­ior, ways of cop­ing with men­tal dis­tress, and the diag­no­sis and treat­ment of men­tal disorders—be con­sid­ered foun­da­tional knowl­edge for all stu­dents. AAAS also includes learn­ing as a topic that should be part of a com­mon core of knowl­edge. Nei­ther the NRC Stan­dards nor the Col­lege Board Stan­dards includes any of these addi­tional brain-related con­cepts in its rec­om­men­da­tions. None of the national stan­dards doc­u­ments spec­i­fies an under­stand­ing of the brain that is as detailed and exten­sive as the core con­cepts rec­om­mended by the Soci­ety for Neuroscience.

Although most states claim to have based their sci­ence stan­dards on the AAAS Bench­marks and the NRC Stan­dards, they are not bound by these national rec­om­men­da­tions and often inter­pret them in very dif­fer­ent ways so that there is lit­tle con­sis­tency in stan­dards across the states. As a result, many states list the struc­ture and func­tion of human body sys­tems as a broad topic in their stan­dards, but only some—including Min­nesota and North Car­olina, for example—specify ideas about the ner­vous sys­tem; oth­ers, such as Cal­i­for­nia and Texas, do not. Because of their strong influ­ence on the con­tent included in and excluded from sci­ence text­books, which have been shown to play a cen­tral role in deter­min­ing what is taught in the class­room, the state sci­ence stan­dards are an extremely pow­er­ful lever­age point for any­one seek­ing to change the con­tent of the sci­ence curriculum.[11]

Brain sci­en­tists, like all mem­bers of the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity, have a key role to play in pro­mot­ing a wider under­stand­ing of the con­cepts and skills that are impor­tant to their field and to sci­ence more gen­er­ally. To help shape their state and local sci­ence stan­dards, researchers and clin­i­cians can vol­un­teer to work with state boards of edu­ca­tion to review new and revised sci­ence stan­dards doc­u­ments; they can also work with text­book selec­tion com­mit­tees to ensure that instruc­tional mate­ri­als are sci­en­tif­i­cally accu­rate and include the sci­ence con­tent intended by their state stan­dards. In addi­tion, brain sci­en­tists can become effec­tive advo­cates for high-quality sci­ence edu­ca­tion for all stu­dents in their local communities.

Other mod­els of engage­ment might also be use­ful. For exam­ple, as the issue of global cli­mate change has become more urgent, earth and atmos­pheric sci­en­tists in fed­eral agen­cies, uni­ver­si­ties, and non-governmental orga­ni­za­tions have worked together to iden­tify impor­tant infor­ma­tion for stu­dents and adults to under­stand about cli­mate and the impacts of and responses to cli­mate change. Now that they have devel­oped a frame­work that lays out the essen­tial prin­ci­ples that all cit­i­zens should know about cli­mate science,[12] fed­eral agen­cies such as NOAA and NASA are fund­ing efforts to develop effec­tive ways to help a wide range of pub­lic audi­ences under­stand the sci­ence and engage in the rel­e­vant issues. Project 2061, AAAS’s sci­ence lit­er­acy ini­tia­tive is lead­ing one such effort. The project is iden­ti­fy­ing data col­lected by the National Oceanic and Atmos­pheric Admin­is­tra­tion (NOAA) and NASA that can be trans­lated into class­room activ­i­ties designed to help stu­dents under­stand a vari­ety of weather and cli­mate phe­nom­ena and the sci­en­tific prin­ci­ples that explain them. Sim­i­lar efforts to iden­tify phenomena-based learn­ing expe­ri­ences in the brain sciences—aligned to national and state stan­dards and to the Neu­ro­science Core Concepts—could be the focus of pro­duc­tive col­lab­o­ra­tions between brain sci­en­tists and K-12 sci­ence edu­ca­tors and researchers.

Editor’s note: in this arti­cle for Cere­brum mag­a­zine, reprinted here with per­mis­sion, Dr. Jo Ellen Rose­man and Mary Kop­pal from the Amer­i­can Acad­emy for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence (AAAS) dis­cuss how brain sci­ence fits into national class­room cur­ric­ula. While rec­om­men­da­tions pub­lished by AAAS, the National Research Coun­cil, the Soci­ety for Neu­ro­science, and the Col­lege Board all include stan­dards relat­ing to the brain, what stu­dents actu­ally learn in the class­room varies greatly from state to state.

Jo Ellen Rose­man, Ph.D., is direc­tor of Project 2061 of the Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence and over­sees its pro­grams and activ­i­ties aimed at improv­ing edu­ca­tion in sci­ence, math­e­mat­ics, and tech­nol­ogy for all stu­dents. Dr. Rose­man joined Project 2061 with the release of Sci­ence for All Amer­i­cans in 1989 and has been involved in the devel­op­ment, test­ing, and dis­sem­i­na­tion of its sub­se­quent tools, includ­ing Bench­marks for Sci­ence Lit­er­acy, Resources for Sci­ence Lit­er­acy: Pro­fes­sional Devel­op­ment, Atlas of Sci­ence Lit­er­acy and its cur­rent effort to design assess­ments of sci­ence lit­er­acy. Dr. Rose­man is the prin­ci­pal inves­ti­ga­tor for the Cen­ter for Cur­ricu­lum Mate­ri­als in Sci­ence, funded through the National Sci­ence Foundation’s (NSF) Cen­ter for Learn­ing and Teach­ing pro­gram, and prin­ci­pal inves­ti­ga­tor for a cur­ricu­lum devel­op­ment project funded by the U.S. Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion and focused on mid­dle and high school chem­istry and biology.

Mary Kop­pal is the com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor for Project 2061 of the Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence, and is respon­si­ble for the project’s pub­lish­ing and out­reach pro­grams. Pre­vi­ously, Kop­pal was the pub­lisher for the National Acad­emy of Sci­ences’ Issues in Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy, where she began her work as the asso­ciate publisher/circulation man­ager. From 1987 to 1994, she was respon­si­ble for the over­all busi­ness and admin­is­tra­tive oper­a­tion of this award-winning national sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy pol­icy jour­nal. Kop­pal also served as mar­ket­ing direc­tor for the National Acad­emy Press, which pub­lished trade, schol­arly, and pro­fes­sional titles in all areas of sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, health, and pub­lic policy.

Fur­ther reading

Online Resources

  • Genes to Cog­ni­tion Online: Allows stu­dents to explore top­ics in neu­ro­science in a dynamic and fluid way.
  • Brainy Kids: This Dana Foun­da­tion Web site pro­vides resources and activ­i­ties rang­ing from vir­tual dis­sec­tions to inter­ac­tive games.
  • Test My Brain: Researchers recruit par­tic­i­pants via this Web site, allow­ing stu­dents to par­tic­i­pate in and learn about actual neu­ro­science studies.
  • Uni­ver­sity of Illi­nois Visual Cog­ni­tion Lab: This site pro­vides videos of clas­sic neu­ro­science stud­ies on top­ics like inat­ten­tional blindness.
  • Brain Hat Tem­plate: Edu­ca­tors can use this hat to aid stu­dents in learn­ing the dif­fer­ent parts and func­tions of the brain.
  • Neu­ro­science for Kids: This site has many great resources, includ­ing record­ings of action potentials.
  • The Whole Brain Atlas: This site asso­ci­ated with Har­vard Med­ical allows stu­dents to manip­u­late brain scans.
  • The Sci­en­tist and Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can: These mag­a­zines have inter­est­ing arti­cles on cur­rent top­ics in neu­ro­science for class­room use with older students.

Arti­cle References

1. Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence, Sci­ence for All Amer­i­cans (New York: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, 1989).

2. Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence, Bench­marks for Sci­ence Lit­er­acy (New York: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, 1993).

3. Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence, “Bench­marks Online” (2009), http://www.project2061.org/publications/bsl/online/index.php (accessed August 2010).

4. Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence, Atlas of Sci­ence Lit­er­acy: Vol. 1 (Wash­ing­ton, DC: Author, 2001).

5. Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence, Atlas of Sci­ence Lit­er­acy: Vol. 2 (Wash­ing­ton, DC: Author, 2007).

6. National Research Coun­cil, National Sci­ence Edu­ca­tion Stan­dards (Wash­ing­ton, DC: National Acad­emy Press, 1996).

7. Soci­ety for Neu­ro­science, “Neu­ro­science Core Con­cepts: The Essen­tial Prin­ci­ples of Neu­ro­science” (2007), http://www.sfn.org/skins/main/pdf/core_concepts/core_concepts.pdf (accessed August 2010).

8. See notes 2 and 3.

9. See note 6.

10. The Col­lege Board, “Sci­ence: Col­lege Board Stan­dards for Col­lege Suc­cess” (2009), http://professionals.collegeboard.com/profdownload/cbscs-science-standards-2009.pdf (accessed August 2010).

11. I. R. Weiss, J. D. Pasley, P. S. Smith, E. R. Ban­ilower, and D. J. Heck, Look­ing Inside the Class­room: A Study of K — 12 Math­e­mat­ics and Sci­ence Edu­ca­tion in the United States (Chapel Hill, NC: Hori­zon Research, Inc, 2003).

12. U.S. Global Change Research Pro­gram, “Cli­mate Lit­er­acy: The Essen­tial Prin­ci­ples of Cli­mate Sci­ences” (March 2009), http://www.climate.noaa.gov/education/pdfs/ClimateLiteracyPoster-8.5x11-March09FinalLR.pdf (accessed August 2010).

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