A ‘savvy’ way to expose undergraduates to research

Encouraging undergraduate students to do some research is good. It improves ‘authenticity’ of learning, helps students put what they learn into practice and improves students’ confidence.

However, what do you do if you are teaching neuroscience and the required research equipment costs tens of thousands of dollars?! You get an affordable, commercial ‘gaming’ headpiece that costs ~60 times less.

save money

We are living in exciting times: consumer technology is becoming so good that it can easily be adopted for basic research. Think of ‘activity trackers’ that monitor your steps and sleep cycles for less than 20 AUD, or wireless head-mounted head-operated gaming consoles that allow you to play ‘Angry Birds’ with your mind.

It’s just a matter of recognizing opportunities, and bringing them into your classroom. This is exactly what teaching staff from the Department of Cognitive Science did when they introduced gaming headsets in their 1st year tutorials to introduced the brain-imaging technique of electroencephalography (or EEG for short).

amanda headset

Photo: Dr. Bianca de Wit demonstrating the headset during a recent Learning and Teaching Exchange (LTX) session. The lovely model is our own Amanda Parker (one of the Teche Editors). 

Giving undergraduate students, especially 250 1st year students, research experience in this technique is a big deal. Offering this experience with research-grade EEG equipment is unfeasible, not only because it is expensive (up to $50, 000), but it also requires a special lab space and comes with 30-40 minutes of ‘setup time’. However, the growing popularity of head-operated gaming consoles changes the possibilities, and gave academics from the Department of Cognitive Science an idea: what if we use gaming headpieces instead? Will it do an adequate enough job to expose undergraduate students to research methods and encourage them to take more interest in research?

This innovative step was inspired by benchmarking trials run by various researchers from the Department of Cognitive Science, in which they compared the performance of the gaming headset with research-grade EEG equipment. And hooray! They did find that the ‘gaming headpieces’ performed adequately. So what happened next?

Bianca De Wit and David Kaplan designed a series of activities for students to give them ‘first-hand’ experience with research.

headset students

Students were asked to split into groups of 5, and take specific roles (e.g. a participant, an experimenter, a note-keeper, etc.) They would then run experiments and work with raw data during their next tutorial to analyse it. Did it pay off?

It did! Being able to conduct a full cycle of experiments was most useful and motivating for 1st year students. Their feedback showed that not only did they enjoy feeling like ‘real scientists’, but, most importantly, it helped them to understand difficult concepts introduced during the unit. Following on from this success, the Department of Cognitive Science is now looking to include similar activities in some of their 2nd and 3rd  year units.

ideaTake-away:

Innovations in teaching can come from most unexpected places. There may be some technology ‘out there’ that can really help YOUR students get more involved and hands-on…Why not take some time and look at consumer apps and tools from a new angle? Can they be used in your teaching? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

tick Interested to find out more details on this particular project? Contact Dr Bianca De Wit.

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