William J.A. Eiler II, Jamie L. Bromley, Ryan A. Rush, and Bob A. Bromley (Franklin College)
*Note: For the version with figures and additional resources included, please follow this link: https://www.dropbox.com/s/27kstlgey8mnmas/March%202022%20Neuroscience%20for%20Undergraduate%20Education%20on%20a%20Limited%20Budget.docx?dl=0
Neuroscience, as a field, has exploded over the past two decades (Society for Neuroscience, 2021). It seems to be everywhere one looks: Bookstores, popular media, continuing education workshops, etc. While it may be included in many undergraduate psychology curricula (NCES, 2019), smaller schools may still be wondering how to incorporate neuroscience research into their programs. Additionally, some may still be struggling on how to include neuroscience concepts and activities across undergraduate programs. Fortunately, with some ingenuity and creativity, both of these things are doable and affordable for most undergraduate programs, especially smaller schools with probably even smaller budgets. This article will share ideas for neuroscience-based activities to include in psychology courses that are engaging and informative for students. Additionally, ways to involve undergraduates inside and outside of the classroom in community service and neuroscience research will be discussed. Finally, resources for purchasing affordable equipment like EEG and eye tracking and using 3-D printing to create equipment at low cost will be shared.
Growth of Neuroscience and Career Opportunities
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 6,191 Neuroscience degrees conferred in 2017-18 (NCES, 2019). This reflects a 7% increase from the previous year, and a 30% increase from the previous decade (2007-2008). The job outlook for the those in the field of Neuroscience is expected to grow 17% in the next decade (2020-2030), which is much faster than the average (OOH, 2021). The most common areas for employment in the Neuroscience field is research and development, academia, hospitals, pharmaceuticals, and physician’s offices (OOH, 2021). While there are many opportunities to pursue Neuroscience in graduate programs, with 52 Master’s programs and 58 Ph.D. programs currently offered in the United States, there are also career opportunities for undergraduate students that have an educational background in Neuroscience. Some of these careers include pharmaceutical sales, equipment technicians, medical and healthcare managers, research assistants, and many more (OOH, 2021). Thus, including Neuroscience across the psychology curriculum will greatly benefit students in numerous ways and can provide additional career opportunities for them.
Starting Small in General Psychology
For a basic introduction to Neuroscience in a General Psychology course, students without a background in Biology may be intimidated and not engaged in learning about the brain and nervous system. One activity that is easily incorporated into General Psychology courses would be creating neurons with Play-Doh. We have been doing this activity at Franklin College for the past 12 years, and students have greatly enjoyed this and have performed better on their exams when asked about the structure of neuron. Students are divided into groups and provided with several colors of Play-Doh. They are instructed to build a basic neuron on a blank piece of paper and label the main structures and describe the functions. Each student in the group is assigned one part of the structure to build so that everyone is involved and engaged. Once neurons are complete, students view the different neurons and vote on the best one in terms of accuracy and style. However, they are not allowed to vote for their neuron! We often feature the winners on our social media department pages with the student’s permission, and we often give a small prize to the winning students, like one of our department stress brains (See Figure 1: Play-Doh Neurons).
As with the Play-Doh neuron activity, we have observed that engaging in hands-on neuroscience activities enhances the student’s retention and their interest in a potentially boring, overly technical topic. Therefore, we created a similarly engaging neuroanatomy laboratory for use in our introductory classes. As human brains are difficult to obtain outside of a medical school setting, we use sheep brains as an alternative for this activity. Various biological sample vendors, such as Carolina Biological (www.carolina.com) offer these brains at affordable prices, approximately $15 apiece. Using the sheep brains, we highlight the similarity of neuroanatomical structures with similar, previously discussed structures of the human brain. For our lab, we pre-cut the brains into two hemispheres along the midsagittal line, this not only effectively doubles the number of brains, but it also allows students to observe subcortical structures. These brains, when handled and stored properly, can last across a number of semesters. In addition, if needed, we have found that small cake pans from your local dollar store work just as well as more expensive dissection trays while Amazon is a good source for inexpensive dissection probes. Though this activity could “gross out” some students, most enjoy the ability to interact with real neural tissue and report that this lab is a beneficial learning experience.(See Figure 2).
Student and Community Involvement
Two ways to increase student involvement and excitement in Neuroscience would be to create a Neuroscience student group on campus and provide community outreach through public library programs for school-aged children. Before we had a Neuroscience major, our students wanted to create a Neuroscience Club, and they went through the process of developing a new student organization, a constitution and by-laws, and requesting a budget through our Student Involvement division. Neuroscience Club is continuing to grow, and they now have plans for field trips and to visit regional graduate programs in Neuroscience. Other club activities include demonstrations of the Neuroscience equipment, sharing research projects, or bringing in guest speakers. A club is a great way for students to meet others with similar interests and to spread the word of the Neuroscience programming on campus.
Additionally, the club partnered with our Psi Chi chapter to create Brain Day at our local community library. We reached out to the children’s librarian in charge of programming, and for the past three years, we have offered an educational program on learning about the brain for elementary school students. The college students staff different hands-on stations for the children to learn about reaction times, explore sheep brains, create brain hats or color brain ornaments, and test out the important of cerebrospinal fluid on protecting the brain with an egg experiment (See Figure 3).
Neuroscience Equipment for Undergraduate Education
Although there are numerous ways of providing low-cost, engaged learning activities in neuroscience, much of the equipment and materials used in the study of neuroscience are prohibitively expensive and represent a significant hurdle to small schools wishing to offer a neuroscience curriculum. However, we have experimented with a number of ways, such as employing emerging technologies and searching out innovative start-up companies, to overcome these obstacles and provide our students with meaningful opportunities in neuroscience despite our limited budget.
Recently, we have begun to embrace the utility of 3D printing and the opportunities it can afford in the development and creation of inexpensive equipment. Although the thought of 3D printing may be a bit daunting, the technology is surprisingly accessible with a shallow learning curve backed by innumerable websites and YouTube videos dedicated to the training of the uninitiated. Entry-level printers also have a very reasonable price point. Our department purchased the reliable PRUSA Research i3 MK3S printer (www.prusa3d.com) for $749 USD; however, similarly capable open-source printers such as the Creality Ender-3 V2 (www.creality3dofficial.com) can be found for around $250 USD. Thus far, we have printed a number of free, pre-existing files found online for use as demonstration models and teaching aids such as a life-size replica of Phineas Gage’s skull, rat skulls for the demonstration of stereotaxic surgery, and models to demonstrate popular optical illusions. You can even find step-by-step tutorials that allow you to covert MRI images into 3D files for printing. Recently we have begun to use design software such as Tinkercad and Fusion 360 (both of which are free for educational institutions) to create our own 3D models. Specifically, we have been working with various students to combine open-source electronics such as Arduino controller boards and Raspberry Pi microcomputers with 3D printed designs to create a modular operant chamber similar to those that typically cost thousands of dollars (See Figure 4). It is our goal to create additional behavioral neuroscience testing equipment such as elevated plus and radial-arm mazes, rotarod, and activity monitors, using 3D printing.
Utilizing Innovative Companies
As mentioned above, providing students with meaningful experiences in neuroscience can be difficult on a small budget so, in addition to employing emerging technologies such as 3D printing and open-source electronics, we have also sought to improve our laboratory capabilities by seeking out smaller innovative companies for equipment rather than larger more well-known suppliers. One example of this is our recent acquisition of electroencephalographic (EEG) equipment through the company OpenBCI (www.openbci.com) at a fraction of the cost of such a system through other suppliers (stand-alone bundles start at $1300.00 USD). Although we as faculty are still new to the world of EEG, this equipment was so easy to set up and calibrate we have already been able to use this fully open-source system in the classroom to demonstrate the concept of neurofeedback by allowing students to turn a fan on and off with their mind. We have been working with a group of students to integrate the electroencephalographical and the electromyographical capabilities of this system to control a remote control car, while another student began using the system to conduct sleep study research. In addition to our EEG system, we also recently began working with an eye-tracking system purchased through Gazepoint (www.gazept.com). Equipment through this company was much more affordable than similar equipment offered by more well-known companies such as Tobii and offers us the ability to provide research opportunities to our students in emerging fields such as neuromarketing.
We have also found several other smaller companies that produce various products that are perfect for in-class demonstrations of neuroscience concepts. For example, Backyard Brains (www.backyardbrains.com) is a small start-up company that offers affordable equipment for neuroscience demonstrations. My favorites from this company are “RoboRoach” which allows you and your students to control an actual roach through the manipulation of its sensory systems and the “Human-Human” interface that allows one person to control the movement of another person’s arm through the stimulation of motor neurons. These are fun, easy demonstrations that have an appreciable impact on students and are relatively affordable with prices from $159.99 USD or in a bundle with three additional products for $999.98 USD. Our students have also really enjoyed the impairment goggles purchased from Drunk Busters (www.drunkbusters.com). These goggles simulate the visual impairment that accompanies the use of psychoactive drugs such as alcohol, marijuana, and ecstasy. There are numerous ways you can use these goggles to demonstrate impairment due to drug use such as cup stacking and mock field sobriety tests, but my personal favorite is having them attempt to drive using a steering wheel controller paired with a driving video game such as Forza.
As you can see, incorporating innovative and engaging activities is accessible to most undergraduate psychology programs and even for high school teachers, if you are aware of the money-saving opportunities available. We will continue to explore new ways to engage students and the community to learn about Neuroscience and to encourage students to consider careers in this exciting and ever-growing field.
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U.S. Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). (2019). Digestof Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d19/tables/dt19_318.30.asp