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Neurological Disorders

We want to teach biology to high school students in a framework that is relevant to their lives. Neurological disease provides this framework because it focuses on how our brains work and how disease and our choices change our brains.

The Neurological Disorders Module is organized around five key questions. These questions guide our investigation of the nervous system from the building blocks of our brains to how our brains control behavior.  The students will explore each of these questions and then, for a final project, use what they have learned to describe how the different choices we make can change our brains.

Unit 1: Got Brains? What do our brains need to do?

This unit is intended to engage students with understanding how their brains work.  As a start, they investigate how brains are put together by dissecting a sheep’s brain. Then they investigate firsthand not only how their brains sense their environment, but also how their brains can be fooled into creating sensory illusions. This unit concludes with a lesson in which students explore how many moving parts that make up their brains need to work together to control complex behaviors, such as language.

Unit 2: What are the building blocks of our brains?

This unit explores the neuron as the primary building block of our brains.  During this unit students learn how the neuron is put together and how it does what it does, and what can happen when different parts of the neuron fail to function as a result of a neurological disease. Students experience an engineering problem in which they are challenged to collaborate to design a faster, more efficient neuron.

Unit 3: How do our neurons communicate with each other?

This unit investigates how neurons are able to communicate with each other to send electrical signals from one part of the brain to another. As an example everyone can relate to, the students begin this unit by exploring how many different factors can influence our perception of pain. The unit then dives into the how’s and why’s of pain perception and how different parts of the brain can collaborate together by exciting and inhibiting each other.

Unit 4: How do our neurons work together to control behaviors?

This unit expands what students now understand about how neurons talk to each other, to take a look at more complex behaviors. Carrying on with the theme of using examples that students will find personally relevant, the unit begins by exploring the sleep-wake cycle. Students keep a sleep journal and use it to directly analyze how their brains are controlling their behaviors. Armed with their knowledge of how neurons in a circuit excite and inhibit each other, students finish the unit with an understanding of how the sleep wake cycle works, and how the quality of their sleep can influence their performance. The unit concludes with an investigation of what can happen when signaling between neurons is short-circuited during epilepsy.

Unit 5: How do our choices change our brains?

This key culminating unit brings together all the understanding the students have acquired with an in-depth investigation of how their choices affect their brains, as well as how their brains affect their choices. The students begin by drawing upon their understanding of how neurons collaborate to form a circuit by investigating the reward pathway. They experience a virtual hands-on laboratory to investigate how certain drugs of abuse can hijack this pathway and stimulate the drive to repeat destructive behaviors. Students grapple with the question of substance abuse as a chronic neurological disorder and explore public policy issues to address the questions of how to deal with substance abuse.

Final Project:

To emphasize how many different kinds of choices and behaviors can have profound effects on their brains, students will assemble their knowledge to create a public health brochure. They use the brochure, in which they explain the effects of a specific choice or behavior, to quash some myths about why we behave like we do and to inform themselves and their communities about the level of both conscious and unconscious control their brains exert.