Virtual Brain Labs (& super resources!)

Yesterday in Frontiers in Science (an upper school elective in which I guest teach once a cycle, usually about technology topics, but always about the teen brain for my last few visits) the class engaged in four different virtual labs about the brain and one hands-on exploration for those who were interested. The class of 10 divided themselves into four groups based upon where they typically sit. All of our students have their own laptops, so each of the students in any group was able to do a given lab on their own. I asked each group to begin with a different lab and then at the end of a given time limit everyone switched to the next lab, thus everyone had the opportunity to cycle through the four labs. Each lab had one prompt to which students were asked to write a response on their wiki journal pages.

LAB 1 – Brain Exploration

Genes to Cognition Online provides an interactive, multimedia, information packed exploration of neuroscience. I had the opportunity to participate in a workshop for teachers on how to use this site, but sadly wound up being unable to attend. As they bill themselves on the site: Genes to Cognition (G2C) Online examines thinking and disorders of thinking across six levels of analysis. Produced by Dolan DNA Learning Center in Cold Spring Harbor, NY, the site includes an overview video as well as online experiments, teacher materials and an interactive 3D brain model.

PROMPT – Choose an area of the brain that interests you. What are some of the cognitive disorders that are associated with that part of the brain. (TIP: Be sure to note which area of the brain you are referencing.)

LAB 2 – Impact of Drugs and Disease

Harvard University’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology has a site dedicated to a High School Science OutReach Program consisting of teacher materials, animations and lecture videos for physiology, microbiology, regenerative biology, evolution, neurobiology, immunology and the biology of cancer. I only just now backtracked my starting URL to discover this very rich resource! The goal of the lab my students did was to get an understanding of the impact of drugs and disease on synaptic transmission between neurons. This lab focuses on alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, heroin, cocaine, and depression.

PROMPT – In general, what do drugs or disease do to the neuron’s ability to fire properly. (TIP: Take note of the neuron’s postsynaptic firing rate.)

LAB 3 – Mind Lab

The Mind Lab is a product of the Japan Science and Technology Agency. This series of four interactive, narrated labs is available in both English and Japanese, and focuses on exploring visual illusions as a way to think about how the brain processes reality.

PROMPT – How might the manner in which each of our brains processes visual information impact how we each make sense of the world around us? (TIP: Do we all “see” the world in the same way?”

LAB 4 – Brain Dissection

Students had the option to dissect an animal brain by either using the Exploratorium’s Sheep Brain Dissection or by dissecting an actual sheep’s brain in class. Joe, the lead teacher for this class, always manages to procure sheep brains from his local butcher. Some years he has been able to bring in enough brains for each of the four tables; this year he had one larger brain and each group was able to spend time dissecting, viewing or holding parts of the brain (based upon their personal preference!)

PROMPT – Choose a part of the brain that interests you and describe it. Be as descriptive as possible. (TIP: The more adjectives you use, the better sense the reader will have of what that part looks and feels like.)

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