Teachers Engage in Neurobiology

April 23, 2022 | Dieuwertje “DJ” Kast, director of STEM Education Programs, Joint Educational Project

A collage of three photos: A person speaks as people sit around a table with pans of a pink object with syringes stuck around it; people write on a sheet of paper; people sit around a table with a person standing and speaking.

On April 2, the Joint Educational Project (JEP) STEM Education Programs hosted a teacher professional development opportunity focused on neurobiology. This workshop was in partnership with neurobiologist Sarah Bottjer, professor of biological sciences and psychology, whose research focuses on brain-behavior relationships in songbirds. The workshop was supported by a National Science Foundation grant titled “The Role of Cortico-Basal Ganglia Circuits in Skill Learning During Development.”

The workshop was set up as a broader impact (BI) for the proposal, and the goal of the BI included advancing understanding of neural mechanisms of developmental learning while promoting science education by organizing outreach activities relating to teaching and learning in elementary school grades. A special thank you to Jessica Stellmann, Eduardo Lopez, Aditi Jagannathan and Carly Hamel for working the event and making it successful!

Dr. Bottjer started the workshop with an overview of her research. She discussed topics such as neural anatomy of vertebrate brains, electrical and chemical signaling in neurons, and data from her lab investigating neural mechanisms of vocal learning in songbirds. Rita Barakat translated these topics into a curriculum of five lessons for upper elementary school teachers.

The teachers went through a series of rotations that included all five lessons and a tour of Dr. Bottjer’s lab. During the tour, teachers saw where songbirds were housed and the rooms for carrying out procedures. They also viewed tissue in a fluorescence microscope. They also could see baby songbirds in a small nest box.

The curriculum included lessons on concentration gradients and on action potentials. (These two lessons used M&M candies to represent the ions that are crucial to neural signaling.)

Other lessons included learning about both fluorescent and protein tracers to map neuron types and routes around the brain. The fluorescent tracer was simulated with a laminated paper brain with mounted tubing in which food coloring was moved around hydraulically. The protein tracer was an antibody stain that was simulated with invisible ink and a worksheet in which there were four proteins that teachers could label with the ink.

The final lesson focused on cross-fostering of young songbirds. This included using kid-friendly songs such as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and “Happy Birthday To You” sung by “songbird foster parents” to test whether the songs are learned or innate. The lesson shows that switching the parent who raises them caused young birds to learn the song of the parent instead of producing their own species song. This outcome shows that the behavior is learned, not innate.