Friday, June 15, 2012

Ten Positive Aspects of Online Neuroimaging Labs for Undergraduate Students  

Science Approach recently completed its NeuroVisions project, which fills a major void in the undergraduate neuroscience curriculum: a lack of educational materials that give students the opportunity to learn neuroscience by working hands-on with real neuroimaging data. With Small Business Innovative Research funding from the National Institute of Mental Health, five online laboratories (e-labs) were developed for undergraduate neuroscience and psychology instruction:
  1. Form and Function of Individual Neurons: Using Confocal Images and Modeling to Learn About Structure/Function Relationships in Nerve Cells [upper level e-lab]
  2. New Neurons for You After All: Using Microscopy to Identify and Quantify Newly Born Neurons
  3. Seeing GABAA Receptors at Work: Quantifying Radioligand Binding and Its Modulation by Endogenous Signaling Molecules [upper level e-lab]
  4. Teen Brains on Alcohol and Other Drugs: Using fMRI to Assess Cognitive Damage and Predict Future Substance Use
  5. Your Brain Without Sleep: Analyzing How Sleep Deprivation Impacts Brain Function

Status of the e-Labs

One e-lab—New Neurons for You After All—has been released and is currently available from Science Approach's website. The remaining e-labs will become available during the summer and fall of 2012.

What Science Approach Did

Each NeuroVisions e-lab immerses students in replicating research conducted by practicing neuroimaging scientists. In each e-lab, after working through introductory materials relevant to the research profiled in the activity, students collect their own data from neuroimages using an online version of ImageJ. Then they add their data to an expert data set; analyze the data with the online Rpad statistical analysis application; interpret the research findings with the aid of feedback provided by Science Approach's learning management system (LMS); and discuss the findings with other students in an online forum.

A rat hippocampal tissue image being analyzed in ImageJ in the New Neurons for You After All e-lab.

What Worked

During development, the e-labs were thoroughly tested with undergraduate students and neuroscience faculty. Interviews and focus group sessions conducted with the student testers revealed a number of positive aspects of the NeuroVisions e-labs, including: 
  1. online glossaries, which expand the depth of the content presented and allow students to access term definitions as needed;
  2. immediate feedback from the LMS after answering questions;
  3. the hands-on and inquiry-based structure of the e-labs, which make the material more engaging and memorable;
  4. the tactile nature of working with brain and tissue images, which helps students learn neuroanatomy;
  5. getting to work through the complete neuroimaging research process, which helps students develop a better understanding of how to design experiments and draw conclusions from the analysis of data;
  6. expert rubrics in the feedback to essay questions, which provide support for improving science writing skills;
  7. making measurements of form and function in research images, which helps students develop an appreciation for the dynamic nature of the brain;
  8. getting a first exposure to neuroimaging technology and data;
  9. using embedded image analysis and statistical analysis apps, which gives students a better understanding of how scientists gather data, quantify observations, submit them for statistical analysis, and interpret the results; and
  10. the opportunity to apprentice in a virtual lab environment, which helps students decide whether they might want to pursue a career in neuroscience research.

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