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The Brain Explorer--Puzzles, Riddles, Illusions, and other Mental Adventures

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Review Synopsis: by afterschool program expert Gretchen Walker

The Brain Explorer: Puzzles, Riddles, Illusions and Other Mental Adventures has all the elements of a successful education resource for afterschool programs. The learners' experience centers on playing games and solving puzzles. The science explanations are short, to the point, practical, and useful in the learners' everyday experiences both in and out of school. Using The Brain Explorer requires little preparation and no specialized equipment; many activities can be used again and again, as afterschool learners practice their memory and problem-solving skills. The Brain Explorer is a good resource for afterschool leaders looking to provide participants with fun activities that build useful skills and increase understanding of how our brains work. No brain science degree required!
Full Review:
The Brain Explorer: Puzzles, Riddles, Illusions and Other Mental Adventures has all the elements of a successful education resource for afterschool programs. The learner's experience centers on playing games and solving puzzles. The science explanations are short, to the point, practical, and useful in the learner's everyday experiences both in and out of school. Using "The Brain Explorer" requires little prep and no specialized equipment; many activities can be used again and again, as afterschool learners practice their memory and problem-solving skills.

The Brain Explorer is primarily a book of puzzles, grouped together and connected to science explanations, that allow the reader to learn how our memories work, how we process visual information, and how we solve problems. These games and puzzles build practical memory, reasoning, and problem solving skills applicable in the learner's life at school and at home. They can be explored individually or in groups, and many can be repeated as learners work to master skills and strategies.

The book itself (and each chapter) begins with a comic-book-style introduction, presenting the book as a journey to explore "the world inside your own brain." The first section, "Caverns of Memory," includes games, exercises, and strategies that illustrate some of the ways our memory works and some techniques for improving memory. "The Forest of Hidden Surprises" explores how our eyes and brains work together to fill in missing information, recognize human faces, and interpret optical illusions. The final chapter, "Puzzle House," provides practice with problem-solving strategies. Two appendices appear at the end of the book: one gives practical advice on how to be a better problem solver; the other gives more information about the parts of the brain and their connections to the skills practiced in the chapters.

Science information, interspersed with the games and puzzles, explains the experience the learner has just had. These paragraph-length explanations are labeled "What's Going On?" They are easy to understand and do not require background knowledge of brain science. They explain why our brains have just interpreted an image in a particular way; they connect how our brain works to why a memory or problem solving strategy is effective. In some cases, they present more than one possible explanation for a phenomenon (for example, the discussion of illusions on page 73). In others, they present questions that are still unanswered in our understanding of the brain (for example, why puzzle-solving feels good, on page 89.) The second appendix, "About Your Brain," maps different sections of the brain, explains their purpose, and draws direct connections to the different types of puzzles presented in the book. The science presented throughout the book is practical and directly connected both to the learners' experiences with the puzzles and to their lives.

While the book is not specifically designed for the afterschool audience, the activities can easily be used in group settings without extensive preparation. At first glance, The Brain Explorer may seem difficult to use. The puzzles are not separated onto individual pages for easy photocopying, nor are time estimates provided. The layout is busy—designed for an individual reader rather than an instructor skimming for an activity. The comic-strip introductions can be confusing if you are not used to reading comic books. However, the directions for activities, and the science explanations, are simple and straightforward. You can use a few games for an afternoon, or put together a whole club or class about memory building or problem solving. Because some games can be repeated many times to build skills, the book can serve as a resource to be used for years. And best of all, for most activities, nothing more than pencil and paper is required.

The Brain Explorer is a good resource for afterschool leaders looking to provide their participants with fun activities that build useful skills and increase understanding of how our brains work. No brain science degree required!