Sep 14, 2016 | By Alec

All of us have struggled in one or more classes in high school, but studying the human brain is a different matter entirely. In a typical neuroanatomy class, students are overwhelmed by huge numbers of terms, definitions, brain structures (all with different sizes, shapes, and locations). It will take a long time to get to terms with all the functional and behavioral associations of the brain, and students typically forget a large amount of knowledge right after exams are passed through short-term intensive work. Surely there has to be a more efficient way to embed crucial knowledge (about the brain or any other subject) into your long term memory.

As it turns out, there is. Educational specialists have been calling for technology-based interactive education for a long time, and Pen State University is now working on a research project to bring this alternative way of knowledge acquirement to neuroanatomy classes. It’s called Brain3M, and has already received funding from the Penn State Social Science Research Institute. Through virtual and 3D printed models, alongside photos and diagrams, they hope to educate students about the function, anatomy, and evolutionary history of brains.

It’s a very innovative approach that could change the way difficult concepts are taught – both inside the field neuroanatomy and beyond it. It’s called Brain3M because it combines three Ms: virtual brain interfaces on Mobile devices and web-based learning tools, MRI scans that can be digitally explored and the 3D printing of Models and puzzles of brain structures.

The project is being led by professor of psychology and associate director of the Institute for CyberScience Ping Li, and also involves Professor Victoria Braithwaite, co-director of the Center for Brain, Behavior and Cognition. They already explored the concept in a paper entitled ‘Brain 3M – A New Approach to Learning About Brain, Behavior and Cognition’, presented at the 12th International Conference on Cognition and Exploratory Learning in Digital Age.

The knowledge itself is of the level that is typically taught in college-level introductory courses. “We argue that Brain3M enables the learner to establish ‘embodied representations’, through the learner’s integration of visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and other sensorimotor aspects of the learning target,” its developers argue. “Adaptive exploration and embodied learning can significantly enhance learning outcomes, especially with regard to long-term memory representation.” This should allow users to use individual body sensations to gain knowledge, a concept that is backed by the embodied cognition theory.

As professor Li explained, the concept grew out of frustrations with teaching students about the human brain. “The idea for the project came about as a way to inspire the next generation of students to learn how the brain works while encouraging them to explore brain research in the future,” Li said.

Envisioning a platform that would allow students to virtually explore brains at their own pace and in 3D, they recruited graduate Fan Zhang to help bring the concept to life. “Designing the Brain3M website was a lot different than designing a printed lesson — it was more about designing the experience the user is going to have,” Zhang said. Initially, a comparative module with human and fish brains was developed that introduces evolutionary components and highlights neural specializations. All in all, 20 key facts about the hippocampus are also taught.

To test it, other team members Jennifer Legault and Lauren Chaby brought Brain3M to local middle school students. “We’ve instructed both at Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania Charter School and the Science-U summer camp at Penn State University Park campus,” Legault said. “We taught all participants the same two lessons in two different ways: each student learned one lesson via the Brain3M website and the other lesson through a PowerPoint in a classroom setting.”

Although the sample sizes weren’t big enough to be conclusive, the results were promising. The Brain3M concept proved to be very educational, and the kids really appreciated being able to control (the pace of) their own learning experience. “More than 80 percent of the participants said they would want to use this website again to learn about the brain, and that’s pretty cool given the fact that interest in STEM fields is not always as high as we'd like,” Legault said.

It was also simply a fun experience. The students were able to extensively play with 3D printed brain models in the classrooms, and curiosity was everywhere as they explored the intricate ridges and folds of the brain. It proved to be a perfect addition to the digital module, the high quality photos and extensive diagrams. “The students can click on any parts of the brain in any order they want, so we're really letting them make their own decisions about their learning,” Legault revealed. “This kind of active learning has been shown to be more effective, and the kids also seemed to like that they could take control of their own learning experience and go at their own pace.”

While Brain3M is thus promising, a lot more work needs to be done to prove the relationship between Brain3M and additional spatial learning achievements. “So if we’re able to show that students’ performance in learning about the brain corresponds with their spatial abilities, then this project could also help them learn about another topic that involves spatial components,” Legault argued.

But for professor Li, the biggest driving force are Brain3M’s broad implications for STEM fields. “This project really exemplifies the collaborative work of modern science in that it has a lot of components of cognitive psychology and neuroscience, but it also involves education, digital learning, big data and 3D modeling,” Li said. If successful, the same principles could be brought to numerous other fields as well.

 

 

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