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The Infinite Classroom: An Ode to Student-Led Classes in Science

Science education in schools has a flaw: Large lectures are by definition impersonal, and they often leave out the larger context of the material. You can ask a calculus student “Why, exactly, did you just learn that double integral?” to see what I mean. Students go to lecture, memorize the material, regurgitate during the test, and then promptly forget it. Lather, rinse, repeat.

This seems like a regrettable state of affairs. Retention of information is highest when the relevance of what we are learning is transparent and accessible. My experience with student-led classes is not comprehensive, but I am convinced the model is perfect for cultivating true understanding.

Paul Broca
Paul Broca, the French neuroanatomist who first discovered first functional specialization in the brain. The region he identified, now called Broca’s Area, is critical for speech production. (Wikimedia Commons)

A Class on How to Read Science

 As a budding Cognitive Science major, I heard of a class with a peculiar name straight out of an abnormal psychology textbook: BROCA. The ‘Berkeley Review of Cognitive science Articles’ is one of many student-led classes offered at UC Berkeley, and while I never took the class, I had the honor of teaching it this fall.

Three years ago, BROCA’s founders identified a hole in the undergrad CogSci curriculum. For students interested in pursuing research experience and careers, there were no dedicated research methods or statistics classes. As such, students were entering research positions without the skills they needed.

The solution was simple: Start a class with weekly guest speakers who discuss an exciting research paper in cognitive science.  BROCA was born into this model, and by taking the class, students are exposed to not just the written reports of science, but also the personal stories of the scientists creating the reports.

If you are considering starting a similar class for your school, don’t be afraid to reach out. Our speakers have included professors, PhD candidates, research assistants, and even former researchers who have gone on to work in industry.

Importantly, the students are not simply listening to yet another lecture. During the week leading up to each class, students read the assigned paper, prepare responses, and formulate questions. Before the speaker arrives, the facilitators help begin the discussion by covering the basics, then open the floor for debate and inquiry. As needed, we also  design crash courses in many of the topics — how to compare brain imaging techniques or the differences between various animal models.

Another benefit of small classes is versatility. I interviewed several facilitators in other science-themed classes, and though they all shared that theme, the range of topics is impressive. Here is a sampling:

The Berkeley Scientific Journal, an undergraduate publication for original research and interviews. (Image by Hadrien Picq)

A Class on How to Write Science

We all consume science writing at some point in our lives — in newspapers, radio programs, documentaries, textbooks, magazines. The writers have to come from somewhere, and the Berkeley Scientific Journal (founded in 1996) is an undergraduate publication that gives students not only a start, but also gives them university credit.

BSJ offers a platform where students can interact with discoveries in a field in a way that is distinct from reading a textbook or lecture notes. For those without experience in research labs, becoming part of an interview team is the perfect introduction to laboratory sciences. I became involved this semester as an author, editor, and photographer. Incidentally, the BSJ’s editor-in-chief, Prashant Bhat, is also a PLoS student blogger.

A Class on how to Integrate Science

The trend for student-taught classes is not exclusive to Berkeley. Just down the coast in Santa Cruz, the Brain Mind & Consciousness class is the first undergrad-taught science class in years. The class and epynomous BMC Society were c0-founded by Andrew Kornfeld, a student of psychology and neuroscience. For 3.5 hours every week, he and several co-facilitators taught students everything from nuclear physics to brain chemistry to drug policy to how patterns in nature are preserved across many scales of observation.

The Brain Mind & Consciousness Society teaches UC Santa Cruz’s only science-based class taught by undergraduates.
(Image by Andrew Kornfeld)

The most important feature of the class is contextualization of each level of detail. If the students learned the chemical structure of caffeine, it was going to be in the context of how its structure relates to adenosine, and how caffeine’s blocking of adenosine receptors will affect one’s conscious experience.

Another advantage of small classes is flexibility. Last spring, as the Supreme Court reviewed a case on gene patenting, the class was debating the ethics of genetic ownership while overlooking Monterey Bay.

Teaching a class of course comes with its challenges. Kornfeld spoke of his trepidation about speaking for a solid hour and a half. After the first class, he quickly realized discussion-based class was far more important than one that was lecture-based. Another worry for any instructor is information accuracy. Questions will come up in your class that you won’t know how to answer. This is an opportunity to put the question to your class to discuss.

A Class that is not a Class, but Ought to Be

“My school doesn’t offer student-led class opportunities.” There are alternatives to an official academic space that can do the trick. For example, a few years ago a small group of students at Portland State University began a weekly event called ‘Tea with TED’. The premise: bring students together in order to “develop more complex insights about a world that transcends disciplines.”

Tea with TED examines the crossroads of art + science, education + technology, culture + industry, language + empathy, literature + psychology, and more. (Image by Stephen F.)

During the first 20-30 minutes, students watch a TED talk or two together, and use the remaining time to discuss the talk. The beauty of TED is its fundamental design for wide audiences. For example, if you know nothing about mycelia, start your Tea with TED by watching Paul Stamets’ talk, ‘6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World’. The ensuing discussion could range from using mushrooms as alternate fuel sources to ecosystem creation to terraforming other planets. Ideas not easily conveyed with words bleed onto  butcher paper-covered tables — all of this over tea, of course.

TWT’s founder, Stephen F., describes the result as “a colorful, healthful, and intellectual atmosphere that feels like a book club hacked by RSAnimate.” While not technically a class, the Thursday meetings frequently drew 20-30 people. It sounds like the perfect complement to single-subject classes, which can feel detached from life beyond the classroom.

As we move through our years in college, with hope we have collected enough experience in our major to return the pedagogic favor and begin teaching our own classes. Teaching BROCA was the highlight of my week, and I look forward to seeing the next generation of classes in science.

Jahlela is a senior undergraduate student studying cognitive neuroscience and music at the University of California, Berkeley. She is an avid photographer, sings constantly, and loves all things science. Follow her  @jahlela or on tumblr

jahlela AT


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