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A student’s odyssey into innovative education

Swagatama Mukherjee

Educators strive to make their classes more engaging for their students. In this article, a PhD student at The Maharaja Sayaji Rao University of Baroda, who dons the hat of an educator for a postgraduate neuroscience course, adds a flavour of pop culture to her pedagogy to make the class entertaining and relatable too.

SM edu title image
Source: Godzilla: Toho Company Ltd. (東宝株式会社, Tōhō Kabushiki-kaisha), © 1955, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. King Kong: RKO Radio Pictures, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As a PhD student, we sometimes get the opportunity to teach graduate classes. This year I got the opportunity to teach a Neuroscience class to post-graduates who were new to the field. This was a great opportunity for me to see how I’d be as an educator and ensure an engagement such that every student not only studies the material but also connects their coursework to the world around them. As these post-graduates may or may not choose to remain in the field, my wish was to at least ensure that the lessons remained memorable.

Educational metamorphosis: from student to teacher

I’ve always admired professors (and their subjects) who’ve taught as though telling a story; so naturally, I too wanted my students to experience the same. In addition, I wanted to encourage them towards exploring the field on their own, by combining academic lessons with real-world relevance within the framework of inquiry-based learning and flipped-classroom methods. So, in my teaching, I incorporated case studies, non-fiction popular articles, and even sci-fi movies!

Neuroscience through the pop culture lens

Various studies have documented the use of pop culture references and memes as a gradual reform in scientific expression and communication, hinting towards an evolution of scientific dialogue. I experienced this myself while interacting with a batch of school students who had visited my institute when my explanation of neurotransmitters and hormones through Pixar’s Inside Out[1] resulted in a roomful of wondrous gasps and nods. 

What drew me the most to adapt this style of teaching came from my own experiences of learning academic concepts from various non-academic pursuits, such as movies, TV shows, and comics. Seeing a real-life problem being written into fiction offered me the chance to make my own connections with what I knew about the subject. 

Thus, I planned my lectures to break down complex neuroscientific concepts through reference to movies, TV shows, and current trends. This simple attempt turned out to be a transformative teaching experience for me, as it successfully aided in connecting the classroom to the world outside. 

Furthermore, employing associative learning techniques proved effective in guiding students through foundational concepts in neuroscience. For instance, in the introductory lecture, students initially associated memory with the hippocampus, inspired by discussions around the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind[2], which explored the concept of memory removal. As the course progressed, this initial link expanded into a comprehensive understanding of memory networks across brain regions like the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, various types of memory, neurotransmitter roles, and disease pathologies impacting memory. This sequential approach deepened their grasp of memory concepts, transitioning from familiar associations to a broader and more nuanced understanding, ensuring relevance to current research in the field. 

A variety of science fiction movies exist as a hyperbole of actual or ongoing research topics. Thus, knowing the limits of our current research or asking what ifs’ are brilliant ways to shift the discourse away from grades and more towards exploring new hypotheticals and concepts. These are (a) much-needed refreshers for the mind and (b) an exercise in thinking out of the box. So an exercise about Godzilla vs. King Kong’ would help summarize the concepts of the action potential, neural plasticity and evolution of cranial capacity, and the pre-requisite knowledge to engage in this discussion would be a thorough understanding of evolutionary neuroscience, types of neurons, and even classifications of the animal kingdom.

Figure: Hypothetical questions to compare the cognitive abilities of Godzilla and King Kong to explore concepts of cranial capacity, role and effects of myelination, synapses and evolution. Source: Godzilla: (CC-BY-NC license) https://​freep​ngimg​.com/​p​n​g​/​1​2​5​6​8​-​g​o​d​z​i​l​l​a​-​p​ng-hd. King Kong: (copyright free) https://​pnghq​.com/​k​i​n​g​-​k​o​n​g​-​p​n​g​-​p​n​g​-​f​i​l​e​-​d​o​w​n​l​o​a​d​-​6​4782/

Marksheets are often considered the standard measure of any class and a reflection of the teachers themselves; however, I believe that the actual measure of a student’s learning is more about their abilities to bring new ideas to the table. During one class, when one of my students reiterated the concept of neurotransmitters and the chemical imbalance theory with the example of the movie Lucy[3], I was certain that the subject left a lasting impression in their minds beyond academia. Given what we know of neural plasticity, their minds are now prone to witness more interesting connections and viewpoints that would always remind them of the lesson learnt well. 

Other approaches

Case studies are frequently underestimated in curriculum development, yet I firmly believe in their efficacy in engaging students’ memory and understanding. Hence, I made a conscious effort to incorporate prominent case studies, such as those of Phineas Gage, Henry Molaison (HM), and Louis Victor Leborgne, into my presentations, who have been pivotal in shaping the contemporary landscape of neuroscience research. They not only provide valuable insights into the complexities of the human brain but also humanize the subject matter, making it relatable and unforgettable for students. Furthermore, they also set the tone for various social themes that the field often integrates with, such as law and public policy, neuro-ethics, and neurotechnology.

Encouraging the students to read not only research articles but also science op-eds was another facet of my teaching. So, during a lesson on memory and cognition’ I included an article on Brain cells for Grandmother’ from Scientific American, which was an easy explainer on how neurons stored memory. This tactic, I was told, came in handy later for those students who struggled to finish reading a scientific paper but were able to practice reading more non-fiction with a variety of such articles and columns. 

Additionally, I made students come back with unique research articles having at least one open-ended question in the field. This, to my surprise, resulted in many interesting debates. In one memorable class, one of my students spoke about her interest in developing AI engines using novel neural network pathways to aid people with learning disabilities with personalized learning— an idea that was inspired by the TV show Black Mirror[4].

Educational evolution: crafting the future for Gen Alpha

Although traditional teaching methods have undoubtedly played a vital role in shaping the legacies of scientific education, innovative teaching techniques are emerging that place a greater emphasis on creating an environment where science seamlessly integrates with everyday life and remains inclusive to students who do not conform to our way of thinking. This dynamic shift is empowering a new generation of scientists and educators to not only learn about science but to truly engage with it, cultivating various types of IQs and a passion and commitment for discovering the mysteries that remain hidden in the realms of the unknown.