December 12 , 2005
the pitcher thinking? Seminar seeks the answer
Using baseball as a framework to teach neuroscience
and psychology was an obvious choice for Hillary Rodman; a self-described
fan and “hard-core neuroscientist,” she also is a veteran
teacher of introductory psychology. Rodman tapped into all of these
roles in designing the freshman seminar, “Science and Myth
“There are all sorts of phenomena in baseball that one might relate to
concepts in introductory psychology and research design,” said Rodman,
associate professor of psychology.
Consider, she said, what goes on in the brain when
a batter decides to swing at a pitch. This deceptively simple example
domains of neurology
and physiology, including perception, decision making and physics—all
of which Rodman teaches in her class.
Rodman keeps the topics flexible, however, depending
on her class’ interests.
When she first taught the course in fall 2001, 9/11 was on everyone’s
minds. Although it was not in her original plan, Rodman used the tragedy to
the role of sports in society.
“The Yankees and Mets and other teams were looked at, to some degree, as
a way of helping New York City get back on its feet psychologically,” Rodman
said. “There was a lot of discussion in class as to whether it was the
responsibility of baseball—and sports in general—to either [resume
its season] very quickly or not to do so.”
This semester’s class spent several days hashing
out the distinction between superstition (for which athletes are
well known, but baseball players are notorious)
and strategy on the diamond. By entertaining this interest from the students,
Rodman also could delve into behavioral psychology and operant conditioning
(modification of behavior based on perceived consequences of previous
Although Rodman’s initial concept was to use
baseball to examine topics related to psychology and neuroscience,
she’s found the seminar helps students
learn to think critically from a variety of academic perspectives. This year
she added to the syllabus Baseball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Batter’s
Box, a book of essays edited by philosopher Eric Bronson. And to get a more
experiential account of being a baseball fan, Rodman’s students read
novel Last Days of Summer.
Discussing eclectic and diverse topics, however, is
really just a way to accomplishing Rodman’s true goal: to introduce
freshmen to the skills of critical thinking. For example, a trip
to a Braves game at Turner Field was one of the more fun
class assignments, but Rodman also had a serious purpose: Students were required
to come up with a hypothesis about human behavior, which they would test
at the ballpark.
For example: Are the most attentive fans seated in
the most expensive seats? Is fan behavior altered by the music and
the ballpark? Do
children follow the example of their parents?
The students talked in class about how to operationalize
variables to measure, how to collect data, what limitations they might encounter—and
then headed off for the game, data sheets in hand.
“This was a way of introducing very basic concepts of research, to get
the students thinking about things in terms of paradigms and difficulties in
interpretation,” Rodman said.
Another assignment was simply to take notes and ask
questions during their fellow students’ presentations. “One
of the goals of freshman seminars is to get people used to the style
of a seminar—the idea of listening and
reacting to each other,” Rodman said.
Although Rodman hopes to equip her students with some
intellectual tools as they begin their college careers, this Mets-fan-turned-Braves-fan
the best part about America’s pastime. In fact, she lists it as a
goal on her syllabus: “To have fun. This is about baseball, after