From the Archives: Encouraging Brain Literacy


Image courtesy of the University of California, Davis, Center for Neuroscience

In 2010, we invited Michaela Labriole, then a science instructor at the New York Hall of Science, to share ways to promote brain-science literacy in schools. Firstly, she writes in her essay for Cerebrum, why limit learning about the brain to science classes?

Teachers can utilize the strong connection between neuroscience and other subject areas to boost scientific literacy. Some students find certain topics in neuroscience, such as neurotransmitters, very abstract. By tying in other subject areas, especially through hands-on techniques, educators can improve student understanding. They can easily turn neurons into an art project by using pipe cleaners and other materials to model different structures, or into an exercise in physical education by asking students to use their arms as axons and dendrites to pass a ball that serves as a neurotransmitter…

Students routinely learn that they must wear bicycle helmets, stay away from drugs, and eat properly, but they are not always taught how helmets, drugs, and nutrition can affect brain function. By making clearer connections to material already being taught, educators can increase students’ understanding of the brain. For older students, presenting brain scans from people who have used drugs or suffered brain trauma make the brain-health connection more evident. For younger students, creating brain hats can help illustrate both the importance of protecting the brain and fundamental ideas such as cortical localization of function. This basic concept states that while some structures may have roles that overlap, and some structures may do multiple jobs, in general there is a division of labor in the brain. Understanding this basic idea primes students for deeper exploration of neuroanatomy. There are many brain-hat templates available on the Internet; educators can create paper hats that students label with the various parts or functions of the brain. For young learners, one could simply put a picture of an eye in the back of the brain hat rather than use words like occipital lobe or visual-processing center. By having students label the hats this way and then wear them, an educator can ask students to consider what would happen if they fell off their bikes and hit their heads in different areas.

On the question of what, exactly, everyone should learn about the brain, in 2010 we also asked Jo Ellen Roseman and Mary Koppal, from the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The advice in their accompanying essay  was based on their general advice on the Academy’s Benchmarks for Science Literacy and Science for All Americans, as well as the National Science Education Standards, by the National Research Council (NRC). [NRC replaced these standards with the Next Generation Science Standards in 2013.]

They also made the point that standards, while they may be recommended at the federal level, are set by each state individually.

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.

Later in 2010, we interviewed Arthur Caplan and Dominic Sisti about the neuroethics curricular supplements and materials they developed for high school teachers (a project funded by a Dana Foundation grant). Through curriculum development, online initiatives, and outreach programs, they hoped to increase discussions about bioethics in high school classrooms. As Caplan put it:

High school students grapple with tough questions, such as “Can we take a drug to do better on our tests?”, or “Should I eat foods made from genetically modified seeds?”, or “Is it right to experiment on animals?” but they don’t necessarily see this as bioethics, even though they talk about these issues in class sometimes. So although they don’t necessarily classify these topics as bioethics, teachers and students alike are interested in these issues. I think teaching bioethics is a good way to teach critical thinking and of promoting tolerant debate on controversial issues.

Caplan also makes the point that science topics aren’t just material for science classes:

We do have teachers who say to us that they’re teaching bioethics already but want to do it better. Or they say “I think I’m interested in this and if you could help me I’d do it.” We’ve been a little surprised at where the interest has come from; it isn’t just science teachers. An English teacher might incorporate bioethics into a lesson on Margaret Atwood novels while a health teacher might work it into a section on sex education.

Sometimes teachers from different departments at the same school have come to us, saying they’re going to make the theme cut across disciplines, for example, history, English, and science. They might study what cloning is in science, look at the history of cloning disputes in history class, and read Frankenstein to capture more of a literary twist for English class. If we continue to expand this program, I think there are opportunities to drive cross-disciplinary teaching.

At the bottom of Labriole’s Cerebrum essay, she lists sample activities and online resources for teachers and self-directed learners. You can find additional material via our For Educators, For Kids, and Neuroeducation pages, as well as our publications list (most are downloadable; some are offered in multiple languages) and Brain Awareness Week sections. The Society for Neuroscience site BrainFacts  also has a section on neuroscience core concepts.

Did you learn any neuroscience or bioethics in school? Is it taught in schools in your area now?

—Nicky Penttila

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