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Lower School News & Stories

Project-Based Learning Week: Build a Brain
Posted 06/01/2015 11:15AM

During the 2015 edition of the Lower School’s Project-Based Learning (PBL) Week, a number of fifth graders had the opportunity to take a field trip to Yale, where they met with neuroscientists and conducted brain experiments. “Students learned about how the brain works—what parts of the brain are in charge of behavior, movement, and emotions—as well as how the brain learns and how the brain interacts with other body systems,” says Richard Layne, one of the fifth-grade co-teachers who led the PBL workshop.

The students started the day learning about cutting-edge research with an impassioned Ph.D. student. Single neuron studies investigate the causes and effects of a single neuron firing. Those firings tell researchers how a butterfly navigates its environment, for example, or which specific neurons fire (and in what sequence) as a rat with electrodes in its brain makes its way through a maze. The group watched a video of a monkey controlling a robot arm by using only its mind. Researchers have learned from that, and single neuron studies have led to a new science of prosthetic limbs, as people are learning to control artificial hands with their brains.

“The students ate this up.,” Layne adds. “They asked a slew of questions, from ‘where are the monkeys and can we see them?’ to the more sophisticated ‘how do you know how to pick the right neuron to study’ and ‘how do you study the neurons that aren’t firing - how do you know what they are doing?’ The Ph.D. student’s jaw dropped at those last two questions, because, as she told the group, those are exactly the issues researchers wrestle with.”

For Layne and Meg Krause, another fifth-grade co-teacher, the highlight of the day was a show-and-tell session with neuroscientists. “One of our students presented a robot simulation of neurons in the amygdala. She explained that the robots were in danger from a fire, that the robots would cry out in distress, and that one robot would rescue the other, and both would sigh in relief. Danger, she explained, causes neurons in the amygdala to fire - the flight or fight reaction we all know. One professor, shaking his head in wonder, said, ‘When I was her age, I had no idea of robots, or coding, or that there was a thing called the amygdala.’”

Another student presented a computer game that simulated an electrical charge jumping across a synapse. He had connected computer code to an interface device called Makey Makey, and connected that to an illustration of the brain done with heavy pencil lead (which conducts electricity). He explained the technology he used, how he wrote the code, and what the game illuminated. A professor said, “I could use you in my lab this summer, if you’re available. We’re working on a similar problem.” (He was serious, but admitted that you have to be 18 to work in a Yale lab.)

Another professor said, “Every year our graduate students have to present to us their research, and they have to explain what they are working on and why they are working on it. You did as well as any of them - you were prepared, and cogent, and you understood your work.”

After their field trip, the students took what they learned and created a more sophisticated brain model by incorporating new information into the design process. “We used the design thinking process, where the students are in charge of solving a problem, to determine the best way to construct a giant brain that moves,” says Krause.  The giant brain was constructed in sections so that it could be easily transported to the Hill Campus for the first annual Lindy 500 Kinetic Sculpture Race. After the race, the brain returned to the River Campus, where it is being displayed in the 5KL classroom as a teaching tool.

PBL Week was launched three years ago as an opportunity for all students and faculty to “take a break from the regular schedule to participate in a variety of weeklong academic activities. Some of the goals of this week are for students to experience learning beyond the boundaries of the school; apply knowledge effectively in a variety of contexts; engage in higher level reasoning skills; and have an opportunity to see the interconnectedness of things they may otherwise learn through more isolated skills instruction,” says Edwin P. Gordon, Head of Lower School.

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