topics regarding the brain are rarely found in curricula of primary schools (ages 6-11 yr). There are several potential reasons for the lack of neuroscientific contents at the primary school level: the brain is a complex subject, it receives little attention in teachers' education, and there is a lack of appropriate teaching material. Therefore, there is a need to develop and provide methods to teach basic knowledge of the brain. Hands-on methods and inquiry-based learning have received a lot of attention in science education in general (5, 8, 12) and in neuroscience education in particular (2, 7). However, the majority of the projects and studies described target students at secondary school or undergraduate university level (4, 11).
Obviously, it is a challenge to address processes that occur in the central nervous system by hands-on activities. Due to the methodological and intellectual barriers, for primary school students there is no way of examining a functional or active brain. Therefore, the topic can seemingly only be addressed by talking about reduced models at an abstract level.
In the present study, we propose an approach that allows for guided inquiry-based learning of very basic and simple processing and organization principles of the brain. A custom-made autonomous robot, named “Herr Tie,” serves as an examination object to make a rather abstract process comprehensible for students. The name Herr Tie (German for “Mr. Tie”) is derived from a wordplay with the name of the Hertie Foundation. Herr Tie gives insights into the basic concepts of sensory processing: The sensory information perceived with our peripheral sensory organs is transmitted to the central nervous system. Processing of the information in cortical areas results in behavioral reactions. Herr Tie is equipped with visual, somatosensory, and auditory senses. With those, the robot can navigate in the classroom without running into obstacles. The brain of the robot is accessible, and sensory cortical areas involved in the processing of visual, somatosensory, and auditory information can be switched “on” or “off” (see Fig. 1). The students, on their own, decipher the function of the cortical regions and their role in sensory processing: without activity in different areas of the brain, the robot cannot navigate properly in its environment.
The experiment highlights two facts about the brain that are learned by the students: 1) we need the brain for processing sensory information and reacting to our environment and 2) there are specialized regions in the brain that are relevant for different processes.
MATERIALS AND METHODS
Herr Tie is a custom-made robot based on a microcontroller (Arduino) lying inside a plastic body. The construction plan, construction files, and an example for the code are freely accessible (http://www.ghst.de/herr-tie/supplementary) and can be used for noncommercial purposes. Attention was paid to the fact that the robotic nature of Herr Tie is not the central feature of its design. Emphasis was instead put on the brain, and the robot was designed to have an appealing appearance with childlike characteristics (see Fig. 1). The sensory organs [ears, eyes, and hands (in place of the skin)] and their corresponding sensory cortical areas are colored (blue, yellow, and red) to facilitate associating their assignments. At the centers of the colored cortical areas, there are LED push buttons that can be pressed to switch on or off the respective area. Whether a given area is active or not is indicated by the states of the LED buttons.
The students themselves prepare the experimental setting and build an arena out of objects available in every classroom (see Fig. 2). The robot navigates autonomously in this environment by avoiding obstacles that it detects with an infrared sensor and by push switches (bumpers) in its hands. In addition, it can be guided by discrete vocal instructions (“turn left,” “turn right,” and “backwards”). However, it only reacts to the sensory stimuli if the corresponding cortical sensory areas are active. By changing the states of the sensory cortical areas, their roles for processing sensory information can be explored by the students. The experiment starts with the following question:
Which cortical regions take part in which sensory process?
During the experiment, students observe the robot's reactions to vocal instructions and its reactions to obstacles it sees or touches. The protocol that guides the students through the experiment is shown in Table 1, summarizing the experimental conditions. For every condition, students observe the robot's behavior in the following predefined order:
Intervention and survey.
The intervention at school and interviews with the teachers were carried out in accordance with the guidelines of the Ministry of Education of the state of Hesse, Germany. The experiment with the robot was tested in the context of a teaching unit that additionally included another four topics dealing with basic brain function. It has been tested so far in 29 classes at 12 schools in science classes of grades 3 and 4 (ages of 8–11 yr). The authors accompanied the intervention in four classes to observe the applicability of the approach.
After the intervention, 21 teachers (20 women and 1 man) that guided the experiment in their classes took part in a survey. In questionnaires, they were asked to respond to statements that referred to the experiment using Likert scales with values from 1 to 5. In the analysis, the median values as well as the values of the first quartile (Q1) and third quartile (Q3) were determined. An overview of the statements and results is shown in Table 2. The survey was carried out outside of school classes and was followed by informal interviews with the teachers.
1. Does Herr Tie follow vocal instructions (i.e., auditory stimuli): yes/no?
2. Does it avoid obstacles at sight (i.e., visual stimuli): yes/no?
3. Does it avoid obstacles it touches (i.e., somatosensory stimuli): yes/no?
Students record the results of the four defined experimental conditions (Table 1), and, after testing, they are given the opportunity to explore the robot's functions without following any instructions. In this “open” condition, they discuss and verify their assumptions and draw conclusions. The following main conclusions are then presented together:
1. The auditory cortex processes sensory information from the ears.
2. The visual cortex processes sensory information from the eyes.
3. The somatosensory cortex processes sensory information from the skin.
In the closing discussion guided by the teacher, the students work out and consolidate their knowledge about abstract processes derived from their hands-on experiment:
1. We need the brain for processing sensory information and react to our environment.
2. There are specialized regions in the brain that are relevant for these processes.
In this study, feedback from students was not collected. A study that focuses on the evaluation by the students and potential influences of the intervention on their learning success is currently being carried out.
Ideally, the experiment with Herr Tie is performed in groups of up to five students, so that every student has the opportunity to interact with the robot. However, in the test classes (n = 21), it turned out to also work with groups of ∼20 students. Guidance by the teacher is then required to allow participation of every student (feedback from teachers in the informal interviews).
The general feedback from the students was highly positive, i.e., they were very interested in the robot and liked the experiment very much (observation by the authors). This view was also supported by the feedback of teachers involved (results from the informal interviews; representative examples: “The experiment was highly motivating for both girls and boys,” “The kids love Herr Tie,” and “The hands-on approach of the experiment did strongly motivate the students.”). In the survey after the intervention, teachers highlighted the high motivational aspect of the model: of the 21 teachers, 20 teachers fully agreed to the statement “The teaching unit has motivated the students” (scale from 1 = “I fully agree” to 5 = “I do not agree”; one teacher did not rate the statement). Furthermore, the teachers considered Herr Tie as being a good material for teaching: on a scale from 1 = “very good” to 5 = “inadequate”, the quality of the experiment was rated with a median value of 2 (Q1 = 1 and Q3 = 2, n = 21). They also emphasized their success in transferring difficult learning content: with a median value of 1 (Q1 = 1 and Q3 = 2, n = 21, scale from 1 = “I fully agree” to 5 = “I do not agree”), they very much agreed with the statement “The teaching unit allows translation of challenging learning content” (a summary of results from the survey is shown in Table 2). In the informal interviews, several teachers appreciated the hands-on approach that allowed the students to explore the abstract topic by themselves.
There are a large number of projects and lots of material for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics subjects in general. The experiment described here addresses the topic of neuroscience at primary school (grades 3 and 4, students aged 8–11 yr) using a guided inquiry-based approach. Neuroscience education would profit from units that focus on the brain and its processes for this age group, since a lot of the material available mostly covers the topic of the senses. Indeed, there are projects like “BrainU” (http://brainu.org/), tools like the “Homunculus Mapper” (http://www.maxplanckflorida.org/fitzpatricklab/homunculus/), or other resources (for an overview, see Ref. 2), but they mostly target older students. In addition, teachers are often not aware of resources like these, and it takes a lot of work and knowledge to prepare neuroscience topics (7).
The robot introduced here was embedded in a teaching unit (including another four topics) with instructions allowing teachers to conduct the unit on their own without external experts. The teachers that conducted the unit gave the feedback that Herr Tie is a very good material for teaching, showing that this is a valuable approach for children of 8–11 yr of age to explore the brain by hands-on activities. This finding was strongly supported by the teachers' statement that the unit allowed for the translation of challenging learning content. Given that there is a model they can handle, children can get a notion of basic processes and functional principles of the brain. They themselves acquire content that would otherwise be taught in a hypothetical, incomprehensible way beyond the student's horizon of experience.
Furthermore, students gain skills that are independent from the described learning outcomes. Due to the inquiry-based approach they learn to ask questions, make and analyze observations, and come to conclusions (10). Herr Tie excited the curiosity of the students, an observation that was confirmed by the teachers. In this context, it is important to note that the approach introduced here also profits from the robot itself being a highly motivational aspect. Other studies also observed that children find robotics stimulating and motivating and that this also holds true for students who are not considered technically oriented (1, 3, 9). This natural curiosity is worth being exploited to raise the student's attention in brain-related topics and to teach complex knowledge.
However, to gain reliable information on the success of the approach, a detailed study is necessary that looks in depth at the impact of the intervention. For a reliable assessment of the learning success, feedback from the students themselves has to be collected. In addition, the approach needs to be compared with other methods that do not use the hands-on approach (control groups, see Ref. 12). A study that focuses on the evaluation by the students and potential influences of the intervention on their learning success is currently being carried out.
The robot can be further expanded and used to address other topics like motor control, lateralization, or neurological disorders. The use of the robot can be extended not only with respect to content but also with respect to older age groups: since the microcontroller can be programmed freely, one could also use the robot for creating and exploring models of conditioning or learning processes (6). Apart from these mechanistic models, it can also be used to excite curiosity in the area of computational neuroscience and draw attention to the research area between neuroscience and informatics.
The project is open for further development spanning all levels from optimizing physical construction and software, adding further sensors and functional brain areas, to illustrating additional neural processes and principles. The positive feedback from teachers in this study shows the potential of the robot for the successful implementation of the topic of neuroscience by a hands-on approach at primary school.
This work was made possible and financed by a project from the Hertie Foundation.
No conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise, are declared by the author(s).
A.L. conception and design of research; A.L. performed experiments; A.L. and L.P. analyzed data; A.L. and L.P. interpreted results of experiments; A.L. prepared figures; A.L. drafted manuscript; A.L. and L.P. edited and revised manuscript; A.L. and L.P. approved final version of manuscript.
The authors thank Antje Becker, Michael Madeja, Jens Renner, and Greta Wonneberger for comments and advice during the development of “Herr Tie” and the experiment. The authors thank Axel Kopp for the initial idea of an interactive “brain puppet” and Emanuela Bernsmann for support with the analysis of interviews. The authors also thank Rebecca Lam and Michael Madeja for comments on the manuscript.
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