“This was totally the highlight of my senior year.” Niket Patel sighed with contentment and a smile. Was this young man at a football game? A pep rally? Prom? Hardly. He was talking about dissecting a sheep brain in AP psychology.
Thanks to the generosity of Dr. Nassif and the science department, and Mrs. McKinney in particular, who collaboratively opens her room to almost 50 AP psychology students with 24 brains, this is becoming an annual adventure. “I didn’t really understand the brain until we dissected it” declared Amanda Gregorio. Other students were so fascinated, like Caroline Coveno, (pictured) that they took the remnants of their brains home in jars for further study or even to share with siblings, like Shailin Shah.
Teaching the brain is always incredibly challenging, “If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.” -Emerson Pugh, The Biological Origin of Human Values. Years ago, we only had a solitary one dimensional chart in a textbook to refer to and the resulting student understanding was rudimentary at best. We watched some videos, I taught mnemonic devices, jingles, brought in play-doh to sculp brains, we even tried some awkward dance moves (glands dangle).
Then when students and teachers integrated iPads into our classroom investigations, the 3D Brain app, became a real breakthrough for student understanding of how the structure and function are interconnected. Through that app and a variety of TED talks students watch for homework, they now have a much deeper understanding of brain architecture than learners did even a few years ago. This is reflected in higher scores on this unit’s AP scores and, more challenging classroom assessments for this unit of study. More importantly, the brain dissection is one of those incredibly impactful hands-on experiences where students simply lose themselves in the process of discovery and collaborative learning. Many students were surprised at how immersed they would become in the dissection process once it began. Timmy Sullivan near the end of his second day of dissecting exclaimed, “I’m literally so amped right now I cannot even.” Clearly he was so enthused he lost the power of speech; highly unusual for Timmy.
The brain dissection project is optional, students are able to instead complete a virtual assignment, but so far, every student has been eager to participate. The reflection projects have primarily utilized Explain Everything or Notability to collect all of the photos, videos, and voice threads into one cohesive report on the relationship between structure and function within the brain. Many thanks to Jenn Scheffer for her support in this, she even came into the dissection and was pumped to see students dissecting sheep brains with the human 3D brain app at their fingertips. The reflection process the students were delving into goes beyond teaching to the standards set out by the College Board and moves into higher order thinking skills as Nina Nguyen said, “I could happily do this every day, can you please move a little? I need to use the microscope.” Every teacher is pleased when they find themselves just getting out of the way and letting their students figure things out.
Niket and Nina deep in conversation after cutting the corpus callosum.
Parth Nagraj and Sarah Iler looking at a slide to see the differences between grey and white matter in the cerebellum.
RJ Hovasse and Michael Almonte plot their next move