In 1973, Amherst became one of the first colleges to offer an exciting new major: neuroscience. Today, Amherst undergraduates still major in the field. Only now, students use electrode-equipped pipettes and computers to probe the interior of individual nerve cells.
Things have changed.
"Today's curriculum would hardly be recognizable from 20 years ago--not to mention the technology," said Stephen George, professor of biology and chair of neuroscience at Amherst. In fact, undergraduate neuroscience still is rapidly evolving. Over the past few years, the field has come to focus on hands-on research.
"Across the country, we are increasingly realizing that the best education is education done by the students themselves," explained Paul Grobstein, chair of the biology department at Bryn Mawr College. "If you want people to go into research careers, you should show them what research is like."
With that in mind, neuroscience programs supported through the Institute's undergraduate biological sciences education program are buying new equipment, encouraging interdisciplinary study and overhauling courses. As a result, undergraduates are discovering creative ways to study the brainand often getting hooked on biomedical research.
Since 1988, the HHMI undergraduate program has awarded $335 million to 220 public and private colleges and universities. The funding has led to more than 200 new neuroscience courses and numerous makeovers of existing courses.
Amherst, for example, has used part of its 1988 HHMI grant to provide students with powerful computers to study neurons. "Our students now have a personal computer at every lab station," said George.
Using an amplifier apparatus, the computers link to pipettes that students hold to manipulate neurons. Students experimenting with earthworm neurons—a classic model—can watch nerve signals transmit from the neurons to the computer, which then sorts and stores the data. "It gives students a real sense of how neurons work," George said.
Undergraduate neuroscience students also use new equipment at New York University's Center (NYU) for Neural Science, which was launched with partial funding from HHMI. "Using sophisticated technology, our students learn the biophysics of individual neurons," said Lynne Kiorpes, an associate professor of neural science and psychology at NYU. "For instance, using leech neurons, they can look at the effects of manipulating membrane permeability, electrical properties and different drugs in the environment."
At NYU, where undergraduates choose research projects, current neuroscience endeavors include the neural basis of emotion; the genetic basis behind certain behavioral differences; visual motion perception; and the distribution of serotonin in the brain.
Faculty members at many campuses also are using interdisciplinary studies to drive neuroscience lessons home. From engineering and physics to psychology, "real world" connections to neuroscience make the field more tangible. Hillel Chiel, an associate professor of biology and neuroscience at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), illustrates the importance of critical thinking and interdisciplinary work with an anecdote: "Imagine there's a trade school where the faculty teaches people how to use tools," Chiel tells his students. "Teachers tell students how to use a screwdriver, a hammer and other tools. Then they give out a multiple choice test. Say a student gets an "A." Would you hire this person to build you a chair?"
The story makes students laugh, but the point, Chiel said, is serious: Critical thinking and application are essential to understanding neuroscience.