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Build-A-Brain Classroom Activity

"Build-A-Brain" combines science content with the visual arts to produce a module that can address students with a variety of learning styles. Students are asked to use play-doh to design and model the brain of an imaginary animal using information they learn about brain structure and function. In addition, this activity utilizes easily identifiable characteristics such as proportion of brain to body mass, relative size of specific brain structures, complexity of cerebrum and cerebellum, and differential development of the frontal cortex. The depth and breadth of the science content can be easily varied to meet the needs and abilities of a wide range of grades.

We have an accompanying powerpoint presentation, a scoring rubric, lots of colored play-doh and a variety of vertebrate brain models to accompany this hands-on lesson. Please contact CBN educator Laura Carruth ,PhD, if you'd like more details on how to use "Build-A-Brain".

Student Objectives

1. Discover the structure and function of the brain
2. Compare and contrast brains of different species
3. Design brain of an imaginary animal
4. Model brain of this imaginary animal using various visual arts media
5. Practice oral communication skills by giving a short presentation


1. Introduction: Explain to students that they are going to build a brain of an imaginary animal. Ask students to write down what they want their imaginary animal to be able to do.
2. Explanation of Brain Structure and Function:
a. Before brains of imaginary animals can be built, students must learn about various brain regions.
b. Show students (handout or overhead) images of a brain. Explain the structure and function of the brain and be sure to emphasize the following points:

Explain the structure and function of the brain and be sure to emphasize the following points:

  • The cerebral cortex is the outer layer of the brain and is the most advanced area. This is where thinking, talking, and understanding take place. It is also the main coordinator of all of the other areas of the brain. Increased convolutions (folds) are most often found in more intelligent animals because these folds allow for increased surface area, providing room for more neurons (brain cells) and connections between neurons.
  • It is generally thought that the two cerebral hemispheres (halves) have different functions with the left hemisphere controlling math and speech and the right hemisphere controlling more creative endeavors. Interestingly, the right hemisphere controls muscles on the left side of the body. The two sides of the cerebral cortex are connected by the corpus callosum allowing coordination of movement and integration of information.
  • In addition to the lateral (right/left) distinctions in the cerebral cortex, there are several distinct lobes.
  • The frontal lobe is located in the front (anterior) portion of the brain and its functions include reasoning, planning, parts of speech, movement, emotions, and problem solving. The frontal lobe communicates greatly with the limbic system in processing emotional and painful information and the frontal lobe has the primary motor region that controls voluntary body movement.
  • The parietal lobe is located in the top/back portion of the brain-- behind (caudal to) the frontal lobe. The parietal lobe contains the primary sensory region (touch, pressure, temperature, and pain) and deals with the integration of sensory and motor information.
  • The occipital lobe is located in the back (caudal) portion of the brain just above the cerebellum and it is important for vision (sight).
  • The temporal lobe is located behind your temples under (inferior to) the frontal and parietal lobes. It is important for memory, auditory sense (hearing), and language.
  • The cerebellum is located on the back of the brain near the base (bottom) and its functions include movement, balance, coordination, and posture. Information from the eyes and muscles are sent to the cerebellum to detect how the body is positioned (this sense is called proprioception).
  • The brain stem is the most primitive area of the brain. It is nicknamed the reptilian brain and controls basic processes such as breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. The brain stem is comprised of the medulla, pons, and midbrain.
  • The olfactory bulb is responsible for the sense of smell.

3. Ask the class to make predictions comparing domestic dog and cat brains. Feedback during this discussion will help clarify any misconceptions that may have developed. If necessary, prompt students with questions such as: which has better balance?; a better sense of smell?; is more intelligent?
4. After they have made their predictions, show students the dog and cat brain images to determine the following: Which has a larger cerebellum? ; a larger olfactory bulb?; more convolutions or folds in its cerebral cortex? ; a bigger brain? How would the breed of dog affect this answer?
5. If time permits, have them do a similar class exercise comparing dolphin and manatee brains, human and chimpanzee brains, and finally dolphin and human brains.
6. Have students work in small groups (three students seems to be ideal) to design and model the brain of an imaginary animal. After the students have had some time to discuss what they want their animal to be able to do, hand out play-dough and other art supplies to students. It is helpful if each group can have several colors of play-dough (4-6 colors).
7. As students begin to build their brains, teachers can keep the students on task by asking the small groups of students questions such:

  • What is your animal?
  • What does your animal do?
  • How is its brain built to perform these tasks?

8. Students present and explain their imaginary animal brain to the class. While the students are presenting their brains, teachers can evaluate their students' presentation using the scoring rubrics.

Build-A-Brain classroom activity content was originally developed by Dr. Melissa Demetrikopoulos, Institute for Biomedical Philosophy.
To contact her please email:

Further development and implementation by John Pecore.

Download the "Introduction to Brain Structure" handout in PDF format.

For additional materials to use in your classroom, or the accompanying Brain Diversity power point, please contact Laura Carruth,

Build-A-Brain Publication in Science Scope (Summer 2006)


A great site for downloadable Brain Images is maintained jointly by the University of Wisconsin and Michigan State Comparative Mammalian Brain Collections, as well as by the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Preparation of all of their images and specimens was funded by the National Science Foundation as well as by the National Institute of Health.

Site with an extensive database that catalogs behavioral and physical characteristics of a great number of animals:

Eric Chudler's Neuroscience for Kids site has a wealth of information about the nervous system. The following pages are particularly relevant to this project:

1. extensive information on the basic parts of the brain:
2. songs related to this lesson:
3. additional creative writing projects:


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