Reflections on Teaching Neuroscience - Yes, Neuroscience is a Social Issue
Yes, Neuroscience is a Social Issue:
Integrating Social Aspects of Psychology across the Curriculum in Puerto Rico
Amanda Clinton, Ph.D., University of Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico, a 100 mile-long and 30 mile-wide land mass located approximately 1,000 miles from Miami and 700 miles from Venezuela is, geographically speaking, an island. In spite of modern technology’s many wonders, living in Puerto Rico is, in many ways, physically isolating, as well. As a teacher and mentor to undergraduate students in the Psychology Program at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez (UPRM), I believe my role is to help students build bridges and broaden their understanding of psychology to expand beyond the shores surrounding us.
Puerto Rico: The Island and its University
According to the 2010 U.S. Census (www.census.gov), Puerto Rico, whose population is 98.8% Hispanic, is “the poorest state in the nation.” The low socioeconomic conditions impact the public education system, including the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) and its campuses across the island. In the past five years, the UPR has experienced significant financial struggles, much like public institutions of higher education on the mainland United States. The implications at the university, particularly my campus, have included extended strikes by employees and students, years of delays in awarding promotions, the end of sabbaticals and a lack of upkeep of facilities so severe that OSHA closed the campus library for health and safety reasons.
In spite of the financial upheaval, tuition rates have remained steady, providing the most economical place to earn a four-year degree on the island. On average, a credit hour costs $53 and virtually all courses are presented by doctoral-level faculty. Admission is highly competitive as a result of its high quality, low-cost programs. The student body, like the rest of the island, is nearly 100% Hispanic, and the majority of students indicate Spanish as their native language (www.uprm.edu). It is not uncommon for students to have had few to zero opportunities to travel outside of Puerto Rico prior to reaching university.
From a Small Island to the Broader World
The study of psychology pertains, in effect, to all we do and who we are, from cellular level influence on behavior to social interaction and social institutions. As a teacher of psychology, I encourage my students to think about the field thought this broad lens. Serving students in ‘the poorest state in the nation’ who are a classified as ethnic and linguistic minorities by the government that grants them citizenship, and yet identify as uniquely Puerto Rican and form the majority in their own country, presents unique pedagogical challenges. The poverty and political instability of Puerto Rico’s government and the university administration (which is appointed by the party in governance and changes practically every four years) leads students to believe their own futures are of limited significance. Most graduates understand that, even in the best economic times, earning a livable wage means leaving the island and moving to the mainland which means leaving family and home for opportunity.
Social Awareness in Biopsychology
In an effort to increase awareness of the broader implications of psychology, I incorporate social issues in every course I teach. This includes my Biopsychology course though it may seem, on the face of things, to be the least likely course in the curriculum for emphasizing social aspects of psychology. The course draws students from several departments, including psychology, biology, chemistry, and nursing.
Teaching social issues to my students at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez is critically important since many students are marginalized and, as a result, may perceive a tenuous connection between effort and outcome, particularly since the unique nature of the context makes many examples seem less relevant. Using the example of biopsychology, I will explore two pedagogical areas of focus that I utilize to connect biological bases of behavior with social issues: 1) context and 2) social implications and applications. Each of these will be explained briefly below and subsequently integrated in order to show the importance of these teaching strategies.
Context. The Puerto Rican context is complicated by the history, the relatively impoverished socioeconomic conditions, the political situation (from corruption to the being caught in the “middle ground” of being a “territory,” and ethnic and linguistic considerations. A course that includes a significant amount of passive listening during PowerPoint presentations draws ire rather than interest and inspired thinking. Active learning, from drawing to singing to dissecting sheep brains to presenting research and making videos, forms the biopsychology course. Furthermore, students’ social inclinations result in a tendency to elect to work in pairs or small groups. Many of the aforementioned activities are, therefore, designed to promote working with peers rather than individually. The result is a class designed to be mindful of student preferences and, in particular, their culture. However, this is done methodically rather than in a haphazard manner.
In the following paragraphs, I will explain how anatomy is addressed. Next, I will explore the way in which social issues and applications are considered in my biopsychology class.
- Is this all there is? Prior to beginning with key aspects of anatomy, discussion is dedicated to “the mind” and neurophilosophy. This once highly Catholic island continues to be very religious, although many faiths are currently observed. For this reason, a theme such as the biological basis of behavior might be an uncomfortable one. However, we begin with a debate and a “vote” is held on the question of whether we are ‘just biological material’ or ‘there is something greater than us that makes our biology so amazing.’ This vote is revisited at the end of the term to assess student changes. The aim is to incorporate and welcome all perspectives, even those that seemingly contradict the nature of the class.
- “Homero Simpson” A subsequent activity to increase personal relevance of the class is that of drawing one’s “mind” and comparing it to his or her “brain.” A cartoon of Homer Simpson that shows his head is full of topics such as beer, TV, a desire to nap, and so on provides a reference point for students who develop their own “mind-brain” design, attaching their interests, dreams, time-drains, responsibilities, etc. to space in their heads. Later, they must respond to questions such as, “Where is ‘family’ actually located in your brain?” That is, what is important to them must be identified not just as key in their minds, but as a function of their brain.
- Neuroanatomy. In order to learn anatomy, several activities are incorporated into our class:
- Students are gifted boxes of crayons or markers and paper on which they draw an outline of their brain to which key structures are added as we discuss them in class. We refer to this project as “habichuelas,” the typical Puerto Rican bean, given its similar structure.
- Once students possess basic structure-function knowledge, we sing and dance (It is the Caribbean, after all)! First, students learn “Brainstem” from Pinky and the Brain (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=snO68aJTOpM). A friendly competition over a few bonus points ensues as each group is video-taped singing and the videos are posted online.
- Next, when the cranial nerves are memorized, students create their own music videos using their preferred rhythms and language (English, Spanish or Spanglish), effectively extending and personalizing the techniques utilized for general anatomy. One of my favorites is a video titled, “The Macarena of the 12 Cranial Nerves.”
In sum, this approach takes into account the importance of students’ personal experiences, cultural context, and learning preferences in order to enhance outcomes and expand understanding.
Social Implications/Applications. Although biopsychology requires a significant amount of content acquisition in order to arrive at the point where social implications of the brain and human behavior can be analyzed, this social analysis is the broader aim of the course. Indeed, in my mind, the purpose of education is to make students aware of the applications of learning and consider meaning within a particular context and across situations. In my biopsychology course, social implications begin locally with a focus on individual students, their families, and their communities. Subsequently, the societal implications of neuroscience and behavior are explored through social issues topics.
- So What?! The ultimate goal of the class is not to memorize anatomical structures nor name neurotransmitters, but to put neuroscience in the context of their own lives, those of people they care about, and their community. Thus, activities and assignments subsequent to the aforementioned basic topics address meaningful applications of neuroscience. Themes include: memory and the brain, multi-tasking, the brain and love, the brain and depression, the brain and “Aha! moments,” the criminal brain, the brain and exercise, and more. I teach fundamentals on these subjects in order to provide background and students then read original research on these topics and, in small groups, prepare an oral presentation and a video on a topic of their choice. The presentation requires summarizing research findings with an emphasis on their meaning for their lives and those of their peers and loved ones, the Puerto Rican community, and beyond. Examples follow.
- The day we talk about exercise and the brain we actually exercise (students are advised to dress comfortably!). After a few minutes of Zumba!, we discuss research findings that neurogenesis occurs in the hippocampus as a result of moderate exercise. This leads to discussions not just about the brain structures and systems involved, but their implications. Can students consider exercise a luxury (“I don’t have time…”) or should it be a necessity? How can neuroscience inform the education system in Puerto Rico? What does it tell us as future policy makers about the benefits of public transportation in terms of general health, neuro-health, and the environment?
- In their music videos on neuroscience, students write lyrics about neuroscience so that it is meaningful to peers. For example, a student created a reggaeton (music of Puerto Rican origins) video depicting him “going crazy” as a result of his feelings for a girl. Later, he understands he’s not insane, just experiencing a biochemical process we call love. This process is detailed in the video, showing how our brains change when we are attracted to someone. The language, the rhythm, and the scenes are all within the student’s context. This experience dovetails into discussions regarding the nature of marriage in the U.S. and Latin America. If love is biological, should marriage be defined by the state? How does the neuroscience of human love inform us in terms of policy, such as gay marriage rights?
- A student favorite is the neuroscience of multi-tasking. This activity allows them time to make calls on their cell phones during class. Students are instructed to call mom, grandmother, friend, or even the person sitting next to them and chat. However, at the same time, they must write a paragraph detailing their activities of the prior weekend. Just as neuroscience shows, composition of a thoughtful paragraph is virtually impossible while distracted by conversation. The inability to adequately engage in two tasks, particularly if they are similar, could potentially tell us something about studying and using Facebook at the same time. The benefits and consequences of modern life are debated in verbal form briefly. Later in the course, students write a position paper on the topic.
- A final example would be analysis of the criminal brain and neuroscience. If we know that many violent criminals have biological differences, how does this information enlighten the prosecution or defense teams in court? Once students debate this in pairs and small groups, they engage in a larger group role play activity. This role play involves an expert (neuroscience) witness and additional research showing that some persons with ‘the criminal brain’ do not act pathologically. The role play allows for review of the bio-psycho-social implications, and students develop a treatment plan for the individual with a criminal brain for avoiding a criminal life.
By connecting brain function and human biology to the larger social world, students gain a new lens through which to see themselves and others. Course attendance is nearly 100% throughout the term, suggesting that students respond well to a class known as unpopular among psychology majors. Class evaluation forms often offer comments like, “Uno aprende porque aprende” [Meaning: “You learn in spite of yourself!”] In terms of day-to-day outcomes, students who understood biopsychology as a torturous requirement begin to change their language after we discussed stress as “increases in cortisol combined by a need for more dopamine and serotonin.” They come to class and report that their parents have agreed to walk 30 minutes a day to improve their memory or that they are turning off Facebook to study. In broader terms, however, many students decide to continue to expand their awareness of the social implications of psychology, science, and, in particular, neuroscience. As per the letters, emails, and text messages I’ve received from my former students, the class helps them look at the world differently. Furthermore, as they overcome the intimidation that once was neuroanatomy and it’s “real” to them, they become more empowered. Several students report feeling inspired to pursue graduate or medical school. Most of them continue to be interested in the “real world implications” of neuroscience whether they are researchers, teachers, lawyers, or psychologists.
Conclusion. Biopsychology, “heavy” as it may be in anatomy and physiology, has a natural propensity to distance students from their interest in human behavior. The methods discussed in this essay, however, bring students who may have received the message from the world that they are less capable, less knowledgeable or less important into the fold of psychology. These pedagogical strategies “make sense” and communicate to students that they themselves have something to offer, and therefore motivate learning during the semester,