Nerve Science - Using Gelatin Circuits to Explore How Neurons Work

written by
Rebecca Vieyra
content provider:
Joshua Dyer

This multidisciplinary lesson for Grades 9-12 integrates Biology and Physics as students model signal transmission along an "axon" by sending a small electric current through a vinyl tube filled with salted gelatin. The lesson plan was inspired by "Bridging Physics and Biology Using Resistance and Axons", an article in The Physics Teacher journal. It is intended to provide a meaningful, real-world context for students to investigate electric current, Ohm's Law, and factors affecting resistance.

Nerve Science - Using Gelatin Circuits to Explore How Neurons Work

Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions (MS-PS2)

Students who demonstrate understanding can: (6-8)

Ask questions about data to determine the factors that affect the strength of electric and magnetic forces. (MS-PS2-3)

From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes (MS-LS1)

Students who demonstrate understanding can: (6-8)

Develop and use a model to describe the function of a cell as a whole and ways parts of cells contribute to the function. (MS-LS1-2)

Gather and synthesize information that sensory receptors respond to stimuli by sending messages to the brain for immediate behavior or storage as memories. (MS-LS1-8)

From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes (HS-LS1)

Students who demonstrate understanding can: (9-12)

Develop and use a model to illustrate the hierarchical organization of interacting systems that provide specific functions within multicellular organisms. (HS-LS1-2)

Disciplinary Core Ideas (K-12)

Structure and Properties of Matter (PS1.A)

The structure and interactions of matter at the bulk scale are determined by electrical forces within and between atoms. (9-12)

Types of Interactions (PS2.B)

Electric and magnetic (electromagnetic) forces can be attractive or repulsive, and their sizes depend on the magnitudes of the charges, currents, or magnetic strengths involved and on the distances between the interacting objects. (6-8)

Attraction and repulsion between electric charges at the atomic scale explain the structure, properties, and transformations of matter, as well as the contact forces between material objects. (9-12)

Definitions of Energy (PS3.A)

…and "electrical energy" may mean energy stored in a battery or energy transmitted by electric currents. (9-12)

Structure and Function (LS1.A)

Within cells, special structures are responsible for particular functions, and the cell membrane forms the boundary that controls what enters and leaves the cell. (6-8)

Multicellular organisms have a hierarchical structural organization, in which any one system is made up of numerous parts and is itself a component of the next level. (9-12)

Feedback mechanisms maintain a living system's internal conditions within certain limits and mediate behaviors, allowing it to remain alive and functional even as external conditions change within some range. Feedback mechanisms can encourage (through positive feedback) or discourage (negative feedback) what is going on inside the living system. (9-12)

Information Processing (LS1.D)

Each sense receptor responds to different inputs (electromagnetic, mechanical, chemical), transmitting them as signals that travel along nerve cells to the brain. The signals are then processed in the brain, resulting in immediate behaviors or memories. (6-8)

Crosscutting Concepts (K-12)

Patterns (K-12)

Patterns can be used to identify cause and effect relationships. (6-8)

Different patterns may be observed at each of the scales at which a system is studied and can provide evidence for causality in explanations of phenomena. (9-12)

Systems and System Models (K-12)

Models can be used to represent systems and their interactions. (6-8)

Models (e.g., physical, mathematical, computer models) can be used to simulate systems and interactions—including energy, matter, and information flows—within and between systems at different scales. (9-12)

Structure and Function (K-12)

Complex and microscopic structures and systems can be visualized, modeled, and used to describe how their function depends on the relationships among its parts, therefore complex natural structures/systems can be analyzed to determine how they function. (6-8)

Investigating or designing new systems or structures requires a detailed examination of the properties of different materials, the structures of different components, and connections of components to reveal its function and/or solve a problem. (9-12)

NGSS Science and Engineering Practices (K-12)

Analyzing and Interpreting Data (K-12)

Analyzing data in 6–8 builds on K–5 and progresses to extending quantitative analysis to investigations, distinguishing between correlation and causation, and basic statistical techniques of data and error analysis. (6-8)

Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence for phenomena. (6-8)

Analyzing data in 9–12 builds on K–8 and progresses to introducing more detailed statistical analysis, the comparison of data sets for consistency, and the use of models to generate and analyze data. (9-12)

Analyze data using tools, technologies, and/or models (e.g., computational, mathematical) in order to make valid and reliable scientific claims or determine an optimal design solution. (9-12)

Developing and Using Models (K-12)

Modeling in 6–8 builds on K–5 and progresses to developing, using and revising models to describe, test, and predict more abstract phenomena and design systems. (6-8)

Develop a model to describe unobservable mechanisms. (6-8)

Modeling in 9–12 builds on K–8 and progresses to using, synthesizing, and developing models to predict and show relationships among variables between systems and their components in the natural and designed worlds. (9-12)

Develop and use a model based on evidence to illustrate the relationships between systems or between components of a system. (9-12)

Planning and Carrying Out Investigations (K-12)

Planning and carrying out investigations to answer questions or test solutions to problems in 6–8 builds on K–5 experiences and progresses to include investigations that use multiple variables and provide evidence to support explanations or design solutions. (6-8)

Collect data to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence to answer scientific questions or test design solutions under a range of conditions. (6-8)

Planning and carrying out investigations in 9-12 builds on K-8 experiences and progresses to include investigations that provide evidence for and test conceptual, mathematical, physical, and empirical models. (9-12)

Plan and conduct an investigation individually and collaboratively to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence, and in the design: decide on types, how much, and accuracy of data needed to produce reliable measurements and consider limitations on the precision of the data (e.g., number of trials, cost, risk, time), and refine the design accordingly. (9-12)

Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking (5-12)

Mathematical and computational thinking at the 6–8 level builds on K–5 and progresses to identifying patterns in large data sets and using mathematical concepts to support explanations and arguments. (6-8)

Use mathematical representations to support scientific conclusions and design solutions. (6-8)

Mathematical and computational thinking at the 9–12 level builds on K–8 and progresses to using algebraic thinking and analysis, a range of linear and nonlinear functions including trigonometric functions, exponentials and logarithms, and computational tools for statistical analysis to analyze, represent, and model data. Simple computational simulations are created and used based on mathematical models of basic assumptions. (9-12)

Use mathematical representations of phenomena to describe explanations. (9-12)

NGSS Nature of Science Standards (K-12)

Analyzing and Interpreting Data (K-12)

Analyzing data in 6–8 builds on K–5 and progresses to extending quantitative analysis to investigations, distinguishing between correlation and causation, and basic statistical techniques of data and error analysis. (6-8)

Analyzing data in 9–12 builds on K–8 and progresses to introducing more detailed statistical analysis, the comparison of data sets for consistency, and the use of models to generate and analyze data. (9-12)

Developing and Using Models (K-12)

Modeling in 6–8 builds on K–5 and progresses to developing, using and revising models to describe, test, and predict more abstract phenomena and design systems. (6-8)

Modeling in 9–12 builds on K–8 and progresses to using, synthesizing, and developing models to predict and show relationships among variables between systems and their components in the natural and designed worlds. (9-12)

Planning and Carrying Out Investigations (K-12)

Planning and carrying out investigations to answer questions or test solutions to problems in 6–8 builds on K–5 experiences and progresses to include investigations that use multiple variables and provide evidence to support explanations or design solutions. (6-8)

Planning and carrying out investigations in 9-12 builds on K-8 experiences and progresses to include investigations that provide evidence for and test conceptual, mathematical, physical, and empirical models. (9-12)

Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking (5-12)

Mathematical and computational thinking at the 6–8 level builds on K–5 and progresses to identifying patterns in large data sets and using mathematical concepts to support explanations and arguments. (6-8)

Mathematical and computational thinking at the 9–12 level builds on K–8 and progresses to using algebraic thinking and analysis, a range of linear and nonlinear functions including trigonometric functions, exponentials and logarithms, and computational tools for statistical analysis to analyze, represent, and model data. Simple computational simulations are created and used based on mathematical models of basic assumptions. (9-12)

AAAS Benchmark Alignments (2008 Version)

4. The Physical Setting

4D. The Structure of Matter

9-12: 4D/H9b. Some atoms and molecules are highly effective in encouraging the interaction of others.

4E. Energy Transformations

6-8: 4E/M4. Energy appears in different forms and can be transformed within a system. Motion energy is associated with the speed of an object. Thermal energy is associated with the temperature of an object. Gravitational energy is associated with the height of an object above a reference point. Elastic energy is associated with the stretching or compressing of an elastic object. Chemical energy is associated with the composition of a substance. Electrical energy is associated with an electric current in a circuit. Light energy is associated with the frequency of electromagnetic waves.

4G. Forces of Nature

6-8: 4G/M5. A charged object can be charged in one of two ways, which we call either positively charged or negatively charged. Two objects that are charged in the same manner exert a force of repulsion on each other, while oppositely charged objects exert a force of attraction on each other.

9-12: 4G/H4ab. In many conducting materials, such as metals, some of the electrons are not firmly held by the nuclei of the atoms that make up the material. In these materials, applied electric forces can cause the electrons to move through the material, producing an electric current. In insulating materials, such as glass, the electrons are held more firmly, making it nearly impossible to produce an electric current in those materials.

6. The Human Organism

6C. Basic Functions

6-8: 6C/M6. Interactions among the senses, nerves, and brain make possible the learning that enables human beings to predict, analyze, and respond to changes in their environment.

9-12: 6C/H3. Communication between cells is required to coordinate their diverse activities. Cells may secrete molecules that spread locally to nearby cells or that are carried in the bloodstream to cells throughout the body. Nerve cells transmit electrochemical signals that carry information much more rapidly than is possible by diffusion or blood flow.

11. Common Themes

11A. Systems

9-12: 11A/H2. Understanding how things work and designing solutions to problems of almost any kind can be facilitated by systems analysis. In defining a system, it is important to specify its boundaries and subsystems, indicate its relation to other systems, and identify what its input and output are expected to be.

11B. Models

6-8: 11B/M1. Models are often used to think about processes that happen too slowly, too quickly, or on too small a scale to observe directly. They are also used for processes that are too vast, too complex, or too dangerous to study.

9-12: 11B/H3. The usefulness of a model can be tested by comparing its predictions to actual observations in the real world. But a close match does not necessarily mean that other models would not work equally well or better.

9-12: 11B/H5. The behavior of a physical model cannot ever be expected to represent the full-scale phenomenon with complete accuracy, not even in the limited set of characteristics being studied. The inappropriateness of a model may be related to differences between the model and what is being modeled.

12. Habits of Mind

12C. Manipulation and Observation

6-8: 12C/M3. Make accurate measurements of length, volume, weight, elapsed time, rates, and temperature by using appropriate devices.

6-8: 12C/M6. Make safe electrical connections with various plugs, sockets, and terminals.

<a href="https://psrc.aapt.org/items/detail.cfm?ID=14005">Vieyra, Rebecca. "Nerve Science - Using Gelatin Circuits to Explore How Neurons Work ." 2016.</a>

R. Vieyra, Nerve Science - Using Gelatin Circuits to Explore How Neurons Work , 2016, <https://www.compadre.org/Repository/document/ServeFile.cfm?ID=14005&DocID=4389>.

Vieyra, R. (2016). Nerve Science - Using Gelatin Circuits to Explore How Neurons Work . Retrieved June 10, 2023, from https://www.compadre.org/Repository/document/ServeFile.cfm?ID=14005&DocID=4389

Vieyra, Rebecca. "Nerve Science - Using Gelatin Circuits to Explore How Neurons Work ." 2016. https://www.compadre.org/Repository/document/ServeFile.cfm?ID=14005&DocID=4389 (accessed 10 June 2023).

Vieyra, Rebecca. Nerve Science - Using Gelatin Circuits to Explore How Neurons Work . 2016. 10 June 2023 <https://www.compadre.org/Repository/document/ServeFile.cfm?ID=14005&DocID=4389>.

%0 Report %A Vieyra, Rebecca %D 2016 %T Nerve Science - Using Gelatin Circuits to Explore How Neurons Work %U https://www.compadre.org/Repository/document/ServeFile.cfm?ID=14005&DocID=4389

Disclaimer: ComPADRE offers citation styles as a guide only. We cannot offer interpretations about citations as this is an automated procedure. Please refer to the style manuals in the Citation Source Information area for clarifications.