Coming up with a neuroscience class that required
no background knowledge and would appeal to freshman was daunting
at first for the director of the Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology
Program. So Paul Lennard ordered some balance beams.
“It occurred to me,” said Lennard, who first taught
his freshman seminar on “The Neuroscience of Athletic Performance”
last semester, “that talking about this would provide a wide
range of topics that would be interesting to students and that they
could apply to themselves in a variety of ways.”
It apparently sparked the interest of many students, receiving the
most first-choice requests of any freshman seminar. Dividing the
class into alternating lecture and lab sessions, Lennard first covered
material in his lectures, then demonstrated the concepts in lab.
For example, one subject was the idea of an “all-around”
athlete: Is there such a thing? Somebody who is good at all types
“The preferred thinking is no,” Lennard said. “There
is no one gene or group of genes that makes the perfect athlete,
but there is a large constellation of individual characteristics,
such as speed, strength, eye-hand motor coordination and balance,
and different people have different sets of these attributes. In
fact, that’s why people tend to be better at certain sports
than others—because there is a biological basis, but it isn’t
the basis of being the all-around athlete.”
To prove this point in lab, students were asked to test their skill
at two related abilities: static and dynamic balance. Students timed
each other standing on the ball of their foot on a one-inch beam
(static balance test) and also on a balance board of the type used
by skateboarders (dynamic balance test). The tasks are similar enough
that it might seem a person who is good at one would be good at
the other. But even among the 15 students in the class, this was
not the case.
“This was a way to have fun and also to learn something that
is usually kind of dry,” Lennard said. “While it’s
a very graphic demonstration of related abilities not being tied
together, it was also a wonderful initial introduction to nonparametric
statistics and ranking.”
Lennard touched on how the nervous system performs motor acts and
how motor programs are organized, which allowed students to become
familiar with some basics of the brain, spinal cord and nervous
system. The students also learned theories of motor control and
discussed the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches.
They learned about the sensory motor interface, such as the influence
of vision and proprioception (how we know where our body is in space)
on the performance of motor acts, as well as other, less obvious
factors that affect physical performance (such as memory and attention).
Learning about measurement, like reaction time, was important in
understanding many of these issues.
“This was not about learning individual facts but rather understanding
concepts of motor learning and motor behavior,” Lennard said.
“I wanted them to relate it to themselves, and that often
meant dealing with expert versus non-expert.”
Most of the students were skilled at a sport, having played at the
varsity level in high school if not at Emory. So using expertise
as a theme resonated with the students and allowed them to explore
issues such as learning, practice and effective feedback.
For example, what is the best way to describe to a novice how to
perform a skill such as diving to catch a soccer ball? Freshman
Amy Franciscovich, a goalkeeper for the women’s soccer team,
confronted the difficulty of describing this very activity using
only words on paper. By using theories and models of motor learning,
she could break down the complex movement into individual skills.
However, she recognized that skill learning requires experiencing
the action as well.
“The labs,” Franciscovich said, “were essential
in the learning process, as sometimes words do not suffice to explain
Which is exactly what Lennard had in mind.