Build a Giant Neuron

Create a model of a neuron by using clay, playdough, styrofoam, recyclables, or anything else you can get your hands on. Then make it fire!

Photo of Meg Krause
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How do neurons work?

The nervous system is made up of cells. Each neuron has a cell body, which contains its nucleus and other important cell parts. Each neuron has many branch-like projections called dendrites. The dendrites carry messages into the cell body. Each neuron has one projection called the axon to carry messages away from the cell body. There are structures at the end of an axon that send messages on to the next cell.

How do you teach 5th graders how a neuron works?

1. Have them be part of a neuron 

To help students remember the parts of a neuron and the sequence of how an impulse travels, we taped labels to each student and told them to round up other students to make a human-size neuron. If you were a dendrite, you were in search of an axon and a cell body, a neurotransmitter, an impulse, and a terminal. If you were an impulse, you needed to travel along something, so you needed to join up with dendrites and axons and terminals. Every part needed to find other parts to make a whole, and they needed to assemble themselves in the right order, with a soma in the middle and neurotransmitters on the end. As the students raced around the room, reading each other’s labels, they started to form human neurons. They put themselves in the right order to take an impulse from one neuron and send it on to the next neuron. They lined up to form a synapses.

2. Have them design and create their own neuron

We put students into pairs and asked them to think about how they could make a giant neuron. (They had already studied the structure and function of a neuron and seen a number of pictures/diagrams of neurons.) They brainstormed and sketched. Then, students made lists of materials they needed. They created were 2' - 4' models that represented the basic components of a neuron as well as demonstrated a synapse firing. Students learned to solder LED's, create basic circuits, and do Arduino coding. They also experimented with mechanical motion by creating pulley systems. 

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