University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Making connections between science and students' lives

September 25, 2014 - 6:23am -- Hillary Lauren

In order to encourage student learning and interest through engagement, our curriculum materials often link to issues relevant to students’ lives and topics that are frequently addressed in today’s news. The past few weeks have been no exception: several prominent news sources have released stories related to topics that appear as the focus in several lessons from Project NEURON.

In the past month, the American Academy of Pediatrics [AAP] has released several documents drawing attention to the issue of insufficient sleep in adolescents and the benefits of delaying school start times to combat the issue. In September, a policy statement declared strong support for school districts that delay middle and high school start times to no earlier than 8:30 a.m. in an effort to help students to achieve an optimal sleep time of around 9 hours. The topic of sleep deprivation is closely linked to Project NEURON’s “What makes me tick...tock?” unit, which is focused on circadian rhythms, or natural biological cycles, especially sleep. The unit examines the health risks of altered sleep cycles as students investigate the environmental and genetic influences of sleep patterns through activities such as an epigenetics game, a case study investigation to solve the mystery of a teenager’s sleep problems, and a debate on the start time of high school classes.

The Tragic Risks of American Football” in TIME magazine raises questions about the safety of a sport that can cause Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and death in atheletes. Makingn connections to this issue that is increasingly prevalent in the news, Project NEURON’s “Why dread a bump on the head?” uses TBI as a lens to investigate human brain structure and function at a macro level, and the causes of cell death at a micro level. Engaging activities include a computer game, The Golden Hour, to help save a young man with a TBI and a Public Service Announcement-inspired mini-magazine through which students can share scientific knowledge with their communities.

Finally, a recent article in the scientific journal Nature creates an interesting bridge between two Project NEURON units that address health, glucose (sugar), and microbes. Researchers studied the affect of non-caloric artificial sweetners on microbe communities in the gut, which may be related to diseases like diabetes. As addressed in the “How do small things make a big difference?” unit, more and more scientific research indicates that human health may be tightly linked to the microbial communities that live in and on our bodies--not just by occasionally making us sick, but by keeping us healthy. Sugar (specifically glucose) is a topic of considerable research interest because of its importance to health as an energy source and driver of metabolic diseases like diabetes. Model development and systems thinking is a strong goal of our unit centered on glucose, the endocrine system and health: “Food for thought: What fuels us?