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Fifth Graders: This is Your Brain on Math
Posted 07/08/2015 08:00AM

Do you remember the anti-drug public service commercial,  “This is your brain on drugs?” If you do, you will appreciate Lower School teacher Meg Krause’s pilot program for fifth graders, “This Is Your Brain on Math.” In it, Krause and her co-teacher, Richard Layne, aim to connect science, technology, and engineering concepts with lessons about character strengths such as optimism, self-control, and perseverance.

After participating in Angela Duckworth’s Talks for Teachers series for K-12 educators last year—in which the University of Pennsylvania psychology professor focused on character strengths and why and how to teach them—Krause decided to develop a unit for fifth graders called “Learning and the Brain.”  She explains: “The introductory lessons involve activities to help students understand how their brains learn and the brain’s plasticity. Then, lessons about the growth mindset highlight the importance of optimism and persistence to help students build the competencies to work hard toward a goal and stick with it.”

One of the reasons Krause is developing this unit is because she wants her fifth graders to really understand the character part of the school’s mission to developing students’ mind, character, and community. “I felt like we were telling them [about the character strengths]. The students know what they are but they aren’t living it. If they understand the growth mindset and neuroscience then they can better understand the character work,” Krause explains.

Dovetailing with this is a yearlong science curriculum Layne and Krause are developing together called “This is Your Brain on Math.” The pair “wanted to create an engaging and interactive unit that integrates science, technology, and engineering and that works with our fifth-grade theme of connections,” Krause says, adding that since the fifth-grade science curriculum is about the systems of the body, “it’s a nice connection to show how the brain is involved in all the body systems.” The end goal is to build a 2D brain model and a 3D brain model using simple circuits and coding software.

Part of this model building occurred during this year’s Lower School Project-Based Learning (PBL) Week (April 27-May 1), when a number of fifth graders spent the week engaged in learning about “how the brain works and what parts of the brain are in charge of behavior, movement, and emotions. You’ll be learning how the brain learns, and how the brain interacts with other body systems. Basically, you’ll learn about how amazing your brain is!” according to the project description shared with fifth graders, which added, “Build a giant brain! Make it move! Watch your brain compete in [the First Annual Lindy 500], the Middle/Upper School Kinesthetic Event - that’s right, as fifth graders we have the chance to participate in this!”

Visit with Yale neuroscientists
One of the highlights of this PBL Week course was a field trip to Yale to meet with neuroscientists and conduct brain experiments. In a letter to the parents whose children participated in the trip, Krause and Layne noted, “[The] visit to Yale was so inspiring, so filled with learning, and the comments the kids received from the Ph.D. students and medical school professors were so complimentary... Any field trip that includes a job offer to a student from a leading neuroscientist has to count as a pretty good day.”

Riverdale students learned about cutting-edge research in single neuron studies from an impassioned Ph.D. student.  Then, it was Riverdale’s turn to lead a show-and-tell session with Yale’s neuroscientists. One student 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.”

It may not look like much in this photo, but this is the larger-than-life 3D brain that was built by fifth-grde students during Lower School Project-Based Learning Week. It was later painted and entered into the first annual Lindy 500 kinetic sculpture race.


This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2015 edition of QUAD, Riverdale's alumni/parent magazine.

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