High School Biology: The Nervous System

This series of lessons is for my SAT level biology class.  As you can see from the bibliography, I have drawn from a wide variety of resources to create a well-balanced unit that includes guided exploration, inquiry, model-building, and learning from original research done by others.

I have found that the peer-review process can create a significant amount of anxiety among students, especially the first time they experience it.  After they get over the initial emotional hurdles, students generally report feeling good about peer-review, but I find that it is very important to have exceedingly clear expectations.  Prior to doing peer-review for the first time with a class, I will do an exercise in which we practice doing peer-review on mock lab reports that I create.

The Nervous System, Day 1:
Initial Explorations and Guided Experiments

Getting Started
• Do Now: Write a few sentences about a time when one or more or your senses gave you information that turned out to be untrue or incomplete.
• Check homework: Randomly call on students to share their labeled drawings of neurons.
• Discuss Do Now. Elicit ideas about why the information from our senses is not always completely reliable.

The Invisible Gorilla
• Watch “The Monkey Business Illusion” http://www.theinvisiblegorilla.com/videos.html (This is a version of the “Invisible Gorilla” video that has a couple of other surprising changes for students who may be familiar with the original video.)
• Discuss how the information that our senses are exposed to may not always be the same as what we perceive.

Sensory and Nervous System Exploration Stations
• Randomly divide students into pairs.
• Tell students that these exploration stations are to prepare them for designing their own experiments about the human nervous system. They will be able to use any of the materials in the exploration stations, or they may use other materials, with the teacher’s permission. Briefly point out each of the stations and explain procedure for rotating through them.
• Smell: Provide flavored seltzer water that has been dyed to match the flavor (i.e., put orange food coloring in orange seltzer water) and seltzer water that has been dyed to be discordant with the flavor (i.e., put red food coloring in orange-flavored seltzer water) and have students attempt to identify the flavors.
• Taste: White chocolate chips, chocolate chips, and caramel chips are provided. Students should take turns tasting chips with their eyes closed and noses pinched. How often do they correctly identify the flavor of the chip under these conditions?
• Sight: Use Snellen eye chart (stand 20 feet away) to test visual acuity. Use Ishihara color test images to test for color vision.
• Touch: Use 2-point discriminators to test the subject’s ability to tell the difference between one and two points of contact. Test should be conducted on the subjects forearm with eyes closed.
• Reaction: one student holds ruler vertically, just above the hand of the second student, who is standing with his/her arm outstretched, fingers poised to pinch or close. When the first student lets the meter stick fall between the fingers of the second student, the second student tries to catch the falling stick as quickly as possible. The time it takes is measured by the distance it fell.
• Rotate though stations.
• Discuss: Share interesting results. What questions do you have after trying these mini-experiments?

Nervous System Experimental Design
• Tell students that they will design an experimental procedure to learn more about one aspect of the nervous and sensory system.
• Give groups time to decide on a question they would like to ask about the human nervous system and develop a procedure. They should write down an experimental question, hypothesis, materials, controls, procedure, and blank data table. Let students know that they can use any of the supplies available in class; if they want additional supplies they will have to make arrangements to bring them in.
• Remind students what constructive criticism is.
• All pairs present their proposed experiment to the class for feedback.
• Give students time to revise their experiments as needed.

• Read Ch. 35 of Biology by Miller and Levine. Answer questions #1-10 on p.917
• Read mantis shrimp online resource http://tinyurl.com/d4fdecg
• Watch eye evolution video https://youtu.be/mb9_x1wgm7E

Nervous System, Day 2:
Student-Designed Experiments and Further Explorations

Getting Started
• Do Now: Review your experimental procedure with your partner(s).
• Check homework: Randomly call on students to give answers to questions from Miller and Levine. Conduct brief class discussion about mantis shrimp vision and eye evolution. Read full Darwin quote to the class (the quote that was somewhat misleadingly abbreviated by Richard Dawkins in the video assigned for homework).
Student-Designed Nervous System Experiments
• Give students time to conduct their experiments and act as subjects in experiments conducted by other groups.
• Conduct a class discussion to ensure that students have the data they need to write their Nervous System Lab Reports. If some students don’t have enough data, allow class to give suggestions about how to solve the problem.
• Review lab report expectations.

Clay Brains
• Have students create and label models of human brains, based on the UNC-CH Brain Explorers activity http://tinyurl.com/q696ubp
• Randomly select one student to present his/her model and explain what the parts of the brain are called and what they do. Then “borrow” a brain model and use it as a prop while giving students additional information (i.e., functions of left vs. right hemispheres, how modern human brains differ from our ancestors’ brains, etc.).

Giant Neuron Powerpoint and Puzzle
• Walk through and discuss the first 6 slides of the “Neurons and Neurotransmitters” PowerPoint with the class. http://tinyurl.com/ph3maaq
• Give each lab group a giant neuron puzzle to solve. Tell them they must put the neuron together correctly and label the parts.
• Walk through the remainder of the “Neurons and Neurotransmitters” PowerPoint. Use slides as opportunities for class discussion.
• Give students small pom-poms to represent neurotransmitters, line up multiple giant neurons, and have selected students model the transmission of nerve impulses.
• As a class, decide on what information was most important and write notes.

• Write first draft of “Nervous System” Lab Report
• Read Ch. 36 of Biology by Miller and Levine. Answer questions #1-10 on p.930
• Optional: Watch Tour the Tongue http://tinyurl.com/6zr5y2e

Nervous System, Day 3:
Peer Review

Getting Started
• Do Now: Review your “Lab Report Requirements” handout
• Discuss the peer review process – remind students that the peer review process is intended to help everyone improve their final product. They should strive to read their peers’ lab reports carefully and give thoughtful, detailed, and fair commentary. They do not have to take their peers’ suggestions, but they must read and consider them.

Peer Review of “Nervous System” Lab Report
• Give students time to read and review lab reports. By the end of the process, each lab report should have comments from at least two students.
• Provide pens of a variety of colors so that each reviewer can write in a different color from other people who have reviewed that lab report. Each student should write their name on the lab reports they review in the pen they use for comments so that commentary can be tracked.
• Give students time to look over their comments and ask for clarification, if needed.

Video equipment, various types of seltzer water, food coloring, cups, various types of candy chip, Snellen eye chart, Ishihara eye chart, 2-point discriminators, 18 inch (or longer) rulers, modeling clay, giant neuron puzzles


Chabris, Christopher, and Daniel Simons. “The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us.” The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Aug. 2015.

Dotti, Kristin. Experimental Biology Daily Lesson Plans. Asheville, NC: Catalyst Learning Curricula, n.d. Print.

Inman, Matthew. “Why the Mantis Shrimp Is My New Favorite Animal – The Oatmeal.” Why the Mantis Shrimp Is My New Favorite Animal – The Oatmeal. The Oatmeal, n.d. Web. 26 Aug. 2015.

Gould, Katie. “Neuroscience Basics through Puzzles and Dance.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 26 Aug. 2015.

The Evolution of the Eye. Perf. Richard Dawkins. YouTube. Bang Goes the Theory BBC, n.d. Web. 26 Aug. 2015.

Miller, Kenneth R., and Joseph S. Levine. Prentice Hall Biology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002. Print.

The Nervous System. N.p.: UNC-CH Brain Explorers, n.d. PDF.


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