Dustyn J. Leff & Rebecca J. Gilbertson (University of Minnesota – Duluth)
Traditional approaches to teaching involve the instructor imparting knowledge to students (Edgerton, 2001). The students are expected to absorb the information and put it into practice at some later time. Though lectures are necessary in many learning situations, they do not promote a higher understanding of course material when used as the only teaching method (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Edgerton (2001) states that understanding material involves the ability to explain ideas, support the ideas with evidence, find examples, and apply ideas in new ways.
Active learning requires student activity and engagement in the learning process (Bonwell & Eison, 1991). The outcome of hands-on activities has been shown to enhance the level of understanding reached and general cognitive development (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005; Prince, 2004). With this in mind, we chose active learning activities to demonstrate brain related concepts to middle, secondary and higher education students (Marzullo & Gage, 2012; Shannon, Gage, Jankovic, Wilson, & Marzullo,
The goal of this project was to bring neuroscience activities to middle school classrooms using a “Mobile Neuroscience Lab”, as part of a community engagement component of a physiological psychology course. This outreach model eases the financial and logistical burden of the community school to facilitate a field trip to the university. Another goal was for the middle school and university students to have the opportunity to engage in hands-on neuroscience related activities.
Learning Outcomes and Strategic Goals
Outreach was performed by undergraduate and graduate students. Faculty members within the department also assisted with the outreach. This addresses the American Psychological Association’s five learning goals and outcomes for the undergraduate psychology majors, including: knowledge base, scientific inquiry and critical thinking, ethical and social responsibility in a diverse world, communication, and professional development (APA, 2013). Students had the opportunity to fulfill these five learning goals in various ways through the outreach experience. The APA also recommends, in their outline for quality undergraduate education in psychology, activities that engage students in academic work and group activities (Halpern, 2010).
This outreach is also beneficial for graduate students. Gardner and Barnes (2007) noted that graduate students have goals and outcomes that differ from undergraduate students. Their study included a survey of graduate students and assessed participation in professional and non-professional activities. They found that graduate students sought professional development opportunities that would help them gain experience for their careers. It was also reported that networking, and learning how to network, was important to the graduate students as well.
Finally, the project met university level strategic goals including: strengthening ties within the community through shared values of research and service, promotion of innovative and integrated curricular learning, preparation of students to be critical thinkers and reflective learners, advance research activities of faculty, students, and students in the community, and to be sustainable and easily repeatable over time.
Planning and Implementation
Multiple steps were needed prior to the implementation of a Mobile Neuroscience Lab which included: equipment purchase, community education partner identification, planning of outreach activities geared towards middle school students, and active learning activity training with university psychology students. Students who completed training received a long-sleeve t-shirt with the project logo and wore the t-shirt during the community engagement activity. Age appropriate assessment materials of attitudes toward science and perceived benefit of the activity was also included. Participation in the assessment component of the activity was voluntary. That is, the middle school students did not have to complete the survey if they did not wish to.
Assessment of Outreach Activity
The content of these outreach programs had an emphasis on anatomy, physiology, and laboratory exercises, with middle school age groups in mind. Initially, there was a mix of large and small group activities. Large group instruction typically included a brief overview of central nervous system structure and function. Following, students completed a paper/pencil brain cap activity and labeled the areas and function of the cortex, cerebellum, and spinal cord. A comparison of sheep brains to human brains followed by a sheep brain dissection small group activity (1 university student to 5 middle school students) was then performed. The current format of the neuroscience outreach activity involves small group instruction only.
Assessments for learning outcomes for middle school students had to be identified. The goal of this outreach program was to inspire young students to take an interest in neuroscience, so we decided that measuring students’ attitudes and beliefs towards science, and the impact of the outreach program on those attitudes, should be the focus. During the first year of assessment, 250 middle school students completed a 19-item satisfaction survey that assessed science attitudes and beliefs, and what they liked or disliked about the activity (BrainU, 2010). The pilot data from this first experience showed that middle school students liked the hands-on activities, but had less favorable attitudes towards large group verbal instruction. We also realized that singular surveys given after the experience did not allow us to compare attitudes before and after the outreach.
During the second year of the outreach, we gave assessments to 139 students before and after the outreach and a demographic questionnaire. Surveys were administered one week prior to the neuroscience activity and within two days after the neuroscience activity. This allowed us to determine whether attitudes and beliefs towards science changed following the outreach. We assessed science attitudes using the My Attitudes Toward Science (MATS) instrument (Hillman, Zeeman, Tilburg, & List, 2016). The measure looked at four dimensions: a) attitude towards the subject of science, b) desire to become a scientist, c) value of science to society, and d) perception of scientists. The data showed that students attitudes before outreach did not differ significantly from attitudes after
outreach. However, this was possibly due to students already having positive attitudes towards science, resulting in a ceiling effect.
Perceived Benefit of Outreach Activity
Regarding undergraduate and graduate feedback on the experience, we found that students saw it as a good learning experience for themselves and would help them professionally. Graduate students had the opportunity to lead entire classes, while undergraduate students led smaller (5-6 students) groups.
University students’ attitudes were assessed using a survey (adapted from Burdo, 2012) that asked: if the hands-on activity (or demonstration) a) improved my knowledge of the topic, b) was a positive experience for me, c) was a better learning experience for me than other types of teaching methodologies I’ve had in other courses, d) improved my interest in the topic, and e) I am likely to continue to seek other courses with hands-on activities. Findings indicate that the students’ view of the community engagement activity was generally positive.
To date, the Mobile Neuroscience Lab has reached over 1000 students (K-12). Nine undergraduate students, fifteen graduate students, and three faculty have participated in these activities, many who have returned over the years to continue volunteering their time. The outreach program was also featured in media outlets, such as local papers and news channels. As an additional benefit, we have been invited back year after year to our community partner, bringing the Mobile Neuroscience Lab to new groups of students.
However, one limitation of the current project is that a single outreach learning opportunity during the year may not be enough to sufficiently educate or leave long lasting impressions on students (see Dierking, Falk, Rennie, Anderson, & Ellenbogen, 2003). However, other literature suggests that high impact hands-on activities are remembered by students (VanderStoep, Fagerlin, & Feenstra, 2000).
Overall, science attitudes and beliefs can be positively impacted by neuroscience outreach activities, particularly in small instructional groups. The low cost of outreach makes it a sustainable opportunity to benefit all levels of students and educational institutions. In the future, we plan to continue assessing science attitudes and beliefs before and after the outreach activity to determine the effectiveness of the activity. We continue to make changes based on feedback from students who participate in our activities. In summary, neuroscience outreach activities provide university students, and the community, engagement that could positively affect science attitudes and beliefs of all students who participate in the activity.
Example neuroscience outreach materials are available from the authors upon request (email@example.com).
The authors wish to acknowledge Nathan Young for his contribution to the title of this essay.
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