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    Refraction and diffraction of light through ice crystals in the clouds

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    Philippa On The Ice Philippa Werry at an Antarctic research camp 2016

New Zealand Science Teacher

Science Curriculum/Scientific Literacy

Grey matters: 'Being Brainy' science resource to go online

Over the past two years, the University of Auckland’s Centre for Brain Research has developed a programme called ‘Being Brainy’, a science inquiry topic for primary and intermediate ages, comprising eight sessions based around the human brain. Designed to encourage kids to choose STEM pathways, the resource has proved so successful that it’s designers are taking it online, so that every school in the country can access it.

brainAssociate Professor Bronwen Connor of the Centre for Brain Research says that part of the motivation for producing the programme was the fact that not a lot of human biology is taught at primary and intermediate level, perhaps because it’s a subject that teachers aren’t always comfortable with, lacking specific training in the topic.

While unsurprisingly the human brain is the thing that everyone at the Centre for Brain Research (CBR) is passionate about, Bronwen says that the ‘Being Brainy’ designers intend the programme to be a platform that gets kids excited about science generally.

In fact, the programme began life as an evolution of the school visit talks that CBR staff were undertaking some years ago, as part of their community engagement work. The feedback from these visits was so overwhelmingly positive, Bronwen and her colleagues realised that the human brain - given we’ve all got one - made for a great engagement context.

The eight hands-on inquiry-based learning sessions that make up ‘Being Brainy’ cover topics such as: the anatomy of the human brain; how brain cells communicate; the motor system; the sensory system; hearing; eyesight; and what happens when a brain is damaged.

Over the past year, the programme has evolved - with the invaluable input of curriculum developer Caroline Mulholland - into a complete set of lesson plans, so that the resource is now completely stand-alone. Bronwen says that teachers now don't need to fear diving into a topic that could be perceived as intimidatingly complex.

“I think that, when presented with a programme on the human brain, a lot of teachers are going to go ‘oh, scary! I don’t know anything about the human brain!’ But Caroline has done a beautiful job of creating these lesson plans, and basically providing teachers with everything they need to learn, so that they can answer any questions their students might have.”

Being Brainy is offered in separate levels for Years 1-2, 3-4, 5-6 and 7-8.

'Being Brainy' in lesson plan format has been rolled out to several schools for term 3, with accompanying professional development provided by the CBR outreach team. What they’ve found though, says Bronwen, is that teachers don’t actually need a lot of assistance.

An example of the inquiry learning within the programme, that Bronwen says kids are very enthusiastic about, is ‘red and green glasses’. Students make their own 3-D glasses, and learn why we perceive the world in depth. Another session involves the ‘jelly bean test', a demonstration of reaction time and reflex. Watching the hands on a clock, students are asked to drop a jelly bean into a cup when the second hand reaches a certain number. Eating jelly beans is of course a side benefit that should go down well.

Something that’s important to Bronwen and the team is that continual interaction with scientists is maintained: students get to talk to science role models, and teachers are supported in delivering the programme. That’s not going to change when the resource goes online, says Bronwen, who has enlisted scientists from Otago University (among others). Experts will visit participating schools where possible - among the kit they will bring with them will be actual human brains, which is sure to elicit plenty of fascination. The team will conduct skype sessions where it’s not possible to get to a school in person.

Bronwen thinks that ‘Being Brainy’ is such a compelling context because it’s something that everyone can relate to.

“It’s really fascinating actually, because the kids don’t know much about their brain. With something like the heart, it’s easier: it pumps blood. The brain, of course, is a bit special. It contains personality, emotions, dreams. And of course it’s the organ that we use to learn, obviously very applicable at school.”

‘Being Brainy’ is planned for online release for term 1 2017.

If you have any questions, please email Bronwen: b.connor@auckland.ac.nz

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