Cathy Reed, the McElwee Family Professor of Psychology and George R. Roberts Fellow Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, will share a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to improve the teaching of cognitive neuroscience at undergraduate institutions. Reed will share the money with two colleagues from the University of Richmond and Hampshire College.
The grant, “Improving Undergraduate STEM Education” (IUSE), aims to implement best practices in teaching cognitive neuroscience at the undergraduate level. IUSE does this by focusing on the teaching of cognitive electrophysiology, a technique found to be particularly conducive to undergraduate learning. Through IUSE, Reed and her collaborators will work to develop a curriculum to engage undergraduate students in cognitive electrophysiology research.
The grant monies will be split between Reed and her two colleagues with funds used to purchase a new 64-channel electroencephalography (EEG) system that measures brain activity through the surface of the scalp, pay participants to be subjects in experimental research, and purchase new computers, supplies and software. In addition, the grant money will also underwrite travel to present findings and meet with consultants and participating faculty, develop course materials, and for hiring two undergraduate associates to help conduct research.
Reed says she was thrilled to learn that she and her colleagues had received the grant. “We have been developing and honing the concept since 2012 so it was immensely gratifying to know that our efforts paid off,” she says. “This grant will allow us to develop an excellent course that can be taught at CMC -- and many other colleges -- and it will also provide us with equipment and a database to support our research programs.”
She adds that the money will enable the construction of a large database of electrophysiological data -- ERP (event related potential) or measured brain responses -- from 300+ subjects and the ability to conduct other research on brand new, fully operational equipment. “The large database that we will construct with this grant will not only provide data for the course that we are constructing, but it will also provide us with research opportunities,” she says. “Each subject will complete a variety of clinically relevant individual difference measures so that we can examine how various individual traits affect basic cognitive function at a neural level. Few if any studies have a big enough sample (e.g., 300 subjects) to investigate these questions.”
The grant will also allow Reed the opportunity to work with colleagues to develop a meaningful product (a freely downloadable course and database) that could help many undergraduates learn EEG/ERP methods regardless of their institution’s resources.
“It will improve my understanding of both EEG/ERP methodology and better ways to teach this information,” she says. “I’ve found that some of the most important improvements that I have made in my classroom have come from adopting suggestions gained from discussions with other faculty about activities and practices that work best for them.”
Cognitive neuroscience relates cognitive processes to brain activity and integrates many principles of fields such as computer science, biology, chemistry, and physics. It is becoming more important as a field because it’s being relied on more heavily to shape public policies ranging from education and health to law and marketing. For students, the skills learned in an ERP lab are transferable to many areas of research and to practical applications of science in medicine, engineering, and other fields.
“For me, this grant will help improve my skills in both the research laboratory and the classroom,” she says. “From this grant, I hope to learn better techniques for collecting, analyzing, and interpreting ERP data from my colleagues and the participating faculty. This will not only improve my own research but also the training of my undergraduates in my lab. I also hope to learn how to better construct a lecture and course materials in such a way that improves student learning and retention of the material. Many best practices for teaching are transferrable across course content.”
Going forward, an essential part of the NSF grant will be to establish a nationwide cognitive electrophysiology teaching/research community to facilitate curriculum development and faculty-student collaborative research.
“To begin, we will form a small faculty learning community of 12 members to help develop, test and revise the curriculum and to increase implementation of best practices,” she says. “We will extend this community by hosting a series of yearly receptions at a major conference that will be open to all interested faculty and students and by including undergraduate research assistants in our curriculum design and research activities.”
If successful, the products resulting from the NSF grant will increase the number and diversity of students with the skills to engage in authentic STEM-related research, better prepare students to participate in rapidly changing scientific fields, and increase the quality of learning outcomes. “The relevance of cognitive neuroscience and its interdisciplinary nature make it an ideal context in which to prepare students for STEM-related fields and to educate a scientifically literate populace,” she says.
In addition, the researchers plan to develop a large, open-access repository of raw data from classic electrophysiology paradigms for use in class activities, lab training, and independent research that will allow students to generate and test original research hypotheses.
“Data acquisition is the main bottleneck in allowing students to generate and test their own hypotheses in neuroscience, which ordinarily makes it difficult to teach EEG/ERP methods in courses with more than 10-20 students,” she says. “We will provide a data set that is sufficiently rich that students will be able to test new hypotheses by designing and implementing novel re-analyses of these data, obviating the need for data collection and allowing for much larger enrollments.”
The National Science Foundation is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense...” With an annual budget of $7.5 billion in 2016, the NSF is the funding source for approximately 24 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by U.S. colleges and universities.