March 24, 2003

Seminar makes neuroscience 'real' for freshmen

By Rachel Robertson

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 of sports?

“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 an idea.”

Which is exactly what Lennard had in mind.