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Faculty Experiences - Frank Krasne

Franklin Krasne - photoFRANKLIN KRASNE


Interview Topics
What matters most to you in your teaching?

How are you using technology as a tool to achieve your teaching goals?

How have your students responded to your use of technology?

What new goals do you have for using technology in teaching?
Analyze complex systems

Design experiments

Exercises & assignments

Thinking like a researcher
Computer classroom/lab

Neuron (software)


Involving Students in Thinking Like Scientists

My goal in the project that was nominated for a Technology in Teaching Award was to create a computer-based exercise for lab courses in neuroscience and behavioral neuroscience that would provide the feel of real scientific research without the need to develop specialized laboratory skills, spend large amounts of time on time-consuming technical procedures, etc.

I also wanted to give the students the feel of real scientific enterprise by having them share information with other individuals or groups as they made discoveries (and sometimes compete to get there first) in much the same way that scientists working on a common problem share information. The scientific problem that the exercise emulated was that of discovering how neural circuitry generates the spontaneous, repetitive movement patterns used in locomotion. This problem has been studied by neuroscientists since the late nineteenth century and is now partially solved. In this exercise,  neural circuitry that generates swimming of an imaginary fish, "Swimmy," was simulated using the  neural simulation program Neuron. The students' task was to discover which of the two dozen or so neurons of Swimmy's simulated nervous system were involved in producing swimming, to discover the circuit of which these cells were a part, and to figure out how this circuit generated Swimmy's swimming activities. The students were taught how to use the computer to do experiments of the general type that neuroscientists working on this problem had used, and they were then asked to   design experiments as they saw fit for working their way toward an understanding of how Swimmy's swimming is produced. Because of the structured nature of the problem, the lack of any need for technical expertise, and the absence of slow, tedious laboratory procedures, students could do in a few weeks of   lab sessions the same amount of research that took real scientists many decades to do. The actual doing was much like a sort of computer game, but the thought processes needed to solve the problem were the same ones required of the real scientist who have worked on the problem.
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My own feeling and that of colleagues who have worked the exercise is that its "feel" is very similar to that of actual experimental work directed at figuring out how real neural circuits work.
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At a more abstract level, the purpose of developing Swimmy was to create a  laboratory exercise that would give students the opportunity (and obligation) to do real science in which they had to design their own experiments in the service of solving a scientific problem rather than merely doing canned lab exercises. In some of my other courses as well I have been concerned to find ways to involve students in thinking like scientists and using scientific information, rather than merely acquiring information and demonstrating their knowledge on exams. Thus, I have devoted a significant fraction of some courses to presenting students with the rationale for and results of important experiments (but no interpretation or discussion of those results) and asking them to figure out what conclusions and implications follow. Doing this calls on much different skills than learning and regurgitating information, and I believe it provides very valuable intellectual experience of a kind that should be emphasized in university science education. Most students find this sort of exercise rather demanding, but at least some of them also find it very rewarding
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Written Interview, April 25, 2003
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