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Brain Power! The NIDA Junior Scientist Program: Grades 4-5


The National Institute on Drug Abuse's (NIDA) mission is to lead the Nation in bringing the power of science to bear on drug abuse and addiction. The Brain Power! Program is one effort in trying to reach this goal. Brain Power! is designed to take students in grades 4 and 5 step by step through an exploration of the processes of science and how to use these processes to learn about the brain, the nervous system, and the effects of drugs on the nervous system and the body. Through hands-on science investigations, a videotape, and supplementary activities that are linked to other areas of the curriculum, students with different learning styles and strengths are given numerous opportunities to grasp the material. In addition, an overall goal of the project has been to make learning fun and engaging and to instill in young students a lifelong interest in science.

The program begins with the premise that a group of children has formed a Brain Power! club that receives problems, or missions to solve from NIDA. Each module is built around a problem or scientific question. Students then use the steps of inquiry to solve the problem. To guide the students through these challenges, they turn to Corty (short for "cerebral cortex"), an animated brain that helps students ask appropriate questions and ultimately solve the problems.


The following describes the five modules included in the Brain Power! program.

Module 1:
Drugs in Society. The goal of the first module is to encourage students to think about drugs, and their impact on society. They are asked to think about differences between legal and illegal drugs and what drugs fall into each category. Afterwards, students are asked to identify how drugs are presented in the media by looking at newspapers, magazines and/or the Internet, as well as discussing how television and movies portray drugs. Students then create scrapbooks showing their findings.

Module 2:
Your Amazing Brain. Module 2 provides students with a basis of information needed throughout the curriculum. Students learn about the major parts of the brain, and are asked to give examples of activities that involve the different parts. Students watch the video and use the Internet to learn about different techniques used to study the brain, and then discuss what each can tell us about the brain and it’s functioning.

Module 3:
Neurotransmission. In this module, students learn about neurons and how they communicate through the process of neurotransmission. When the students have a good understanding of the information presented in the module, they are asked to help create a board game by writing messages and questions that relate to what they have learned. After creating and playing the game, students are encouraged to devise their own original way to explain the process of neurotransmission.

Module 4:
How Stimulants Affect the Nervous System. In this module and in module 5, students build upon their knowledge of the brain and neurotransmission as they learn about both legal and illegal drugs and their effects on the brain and body. This module focuses on stimulants, a group of drugs that includes caffeine, nicotine, methylphenidate (Ritalin), amphetamines, and cocaine. Students learn about the effects of stimulants through the video and by comparing a PET image of a normal brain to a PET image of a brain that has been exposed to drugs. Students are asked to write down their findings and share them with the class.

Module 5:
Alcohol, Marijuana, Inhalants. In this module, students learn about alcohol, marijuana, and inhalants, and the ways that these drugs affect the body, brain and nervous system through the video and by reviewing the Fact Sheet on these drugs. Once they have a basic understanding of this information, they are required to draw a picture of the human body showing which areas of the body and brain are affected by the drugs covered in this module, as well as stimulants.

Module 6:
What is Addiction? In Module 6, students learn about addiction and that it is a disease affecting the brain. Students are instructed to watch the video and use the information presented in all the modules to add additional pages to the scrapbooks created in Module 1. Students then compare what they’ve learned throughout the program to their initial findings in Module 1. At the end of this module, students develop and play a trivia game relating to drugs of abuse and addiction to assess their comprehension of the information presented in the program.

Components of the Brain Power! Program

The Brain Power! program includes a wide range of components, each of which serves a different purpose. For example, the Teacher's Guide includes important information the teacher needs to present the program most effectively, while the videotape provides an interesting learning device to use with students to reinforce the module’s concepts. Following is a more detailed explanation of the components:

Teacher's Guide: This document includes a lesson plan for each module of the program. Each Teacher's Guide includes an introduction to the module, learning objectives, how the module is related to the National Science Education Standards, a scientific background that is helpful in teaching the module, a materials list, a preparation that the teacher must do before teaching the module, step-by-step procedures on how to complete the investigation, discussion questions that help students synthesize what they learned, extensions describing how the activity can be linked to other areas of the curriculum, what teachers should look for in assessing students' work during the activity, and resources for teachers and students. In some instances, the Teacher's Guide also includes handouts such as forms, log sheets, and recording charts.

Videotape: Each module includes a videotape that sets the stage for the investigation by providing background information and summarizing the main ideas of the activity. The video for each module has two short parts: one to kick off the activity for the module and one to conclude the module. The video includes closed-captioning for hearing impaired students.

Introductory Story: A teacher who does not have access to a VCR can read the introductory story provided in text as a way to present the activity to the class.

Trading Cards: Each module comes with a set of trading cards that provides additional information about the concepts covered in the module. Suggestions of ways to use the trading cards are included in the Extensions and Additional Activities sections of the Teacher's Guide. There are two versions of the trading cards: a black and white version that can be reproduced easily and a color version with more detailed illustrations.

Parent Newsletter: Each module comes with a newsletter for parents that comes both in English and Spanish. Each newsletter includes background information about what the children learned, questions or activities that parents can pursue with their children, an opportunity for children to express their thoughts about what they just learned, and additional resources. In some cases, such as in the Module 4 newsletter, it is strongly suggested that parents talk to their children about sensitive issues, such as the difference between taking Ritalin for ADHD and taking it recreationally. Parents should use their judgement about how deeply they wish to delve into these issues.

Poster: Each module comes with a poster highlighting its main points. Teachers can hang the poster in the classroom to remind students of what they learned earlier and how it relates to the next module. The posters appear as a 3-D image when viewed through the included 3-D glasses.

How to Use Brain Power! The NIDA Junior Scientists Program

The program is flexible and adaptable to a variety of situations. Teachers should feel free to use any or all of its components in a way that makes sense for their students. For those who would like some suggestions on how to use the program, several ideas are listed below.

  1. Begin with a brainstorming session.Introduce the program by asking students what they know about the brain, the nervous system, and drugs. Do they see any connection among these topics? Are they puzzled that you are asking about them together? Then ask them if there is anything they would like to learn about these topics. Record their ideas on sheets of newsprint. You may find it useful to refer to them as you proceed through the module.
  2. Begin each module with the first segment of the videotape.The videotape for each module has been developed in two segments. The first segment introduces the activity. Show that segment to students first, before beginning the actual investigation. The video may pique interest for those students who are visual learners. The remaining segment is meant to be shown after students have completed the activity as a way to help them synthesize the information and conclude the lesson.
  3. Complete all six modules consecutively to build conceptual understanding. The program has been carefully structured so that modules build on one another. Topics follow logically and show a natural progression from providing a context for why we study drugs, to the brain, to neurotransmission, then to substances that affect the brain and the process of neurotransmission. The most effective way for students to understand the sequence is by completing the modules consecutively.
  4. Link the science program to other areas of the curriculum.Many ideas that integrate science with other areas of the curriculum are included in the Teacher's Guide that accompanies each module. These activities help reinforce learning by showing students the connections between science and other areas of the curriculum, including reading, social studies, and language arts. It is helpful to do at least one extension for each module.
  5. Encourage students to use the Internet for research.The Additional Resources section of the Teacher’s Guide includes Websites that children can visit to learn more about neuroscience and drugs. Encourage students to use this opportunity to become more familiar with using the Internet as a research tool.
  6. Be aware of the sensitivity of students.This curriculum is designed to be more involved than the previous two, and thus covers drugs in greater detail. Encourage students to talk to you, the guidance counselor or their parents if they have questions about the information presented.

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Module 1 Module 2
Module 3 Module 4
Module 5 Module 6

Ordering Information

This package can be ordered by calling 1-877-NIDA-NIH and request "BPPACK2"

Or it can be ordered online at backtoschool.drugabuse.gov.

Contact Information

For questions regarding NIDA's Science Education Program and Materials, contact Cathrine Sasek, Ph.D., e-mail: csasek@nih.gov.

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