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Faculty Innovation: Dana Leighton's psyche out

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Dana Leighton’s psychology class knows what you’re thinking. Okay, maybe not exactly, but that’s part of a research project his students have been taking part in for the better part of the 2007-08 year.

The project began five years ago when two college psychology instructors, Howard Thorsheim at St. Olaf College and Robert Gephart at Itasca Community College met at a conference. Leighton said they realized that there was great potential in bringing the experience of active participation in research experiments to community college introductory psychology students.

“Psychophysiology is the study of the interactive relationships between body and mind — how our thoughts, emotions, and other mental processes affect our physiological state and vice-versa,” Leighton said. “Howard had a quite extensive psychophysiology laboratory at St. Olaf College. Bob went to visit the lab, and they formed a collaborative partnership developing the curriculum to bring psychophysiology experiments into the community college’s introductory psychology classroom.”

Those instructors developed a set of successful activities that worked well in the introductory psychology classroom, and then applied to the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a grant to expand the program into a national workshop. That workshop occurred in 2007, where 42 community college faculty members, including Leighton, were selected from all across the country.

Thorsheim and Gephart are collecting data on how these activities are enhancing critical thinking and knowledge of science. One of the PCC core outcomes is to develop critical thinking and problem solving skills, which can viewed here on the PCC Web site.

“I immediately recognized the potential value of creating activities using psychophysiology experiments to develop just these skills,” Leighton said. “So, I created a series of laboratory exercises my students engage in to use the scientific method to investigate psychological phenomena.”

Leighton created an experiment to measure some psycho-physiological indicators of mental and physical processes, in response to some stimulus. For example, in one lab they measure the brain’s electrical activity differences between relaxed states and while they are engaged in a problem solving task. They take existing knowledge about some phenomenon, use that existing knowledge to propose a hypothesis about what will occur when an experiment is run.

“The benefit to the students is that they get to directly experience the research process, which is rare at community colleges,” he said. “They also learn critical thinking skills, some rudimentary data analysis skills, and skills at doing analytical problem solving. In terms of the community, certainly they bring that experience out of the college into their jobs and homes, to help them make better, more informed decisions. They would be better able to make more analytical decisions, collecting and analyzing data, but also to critically evaluate the source of data and the conclusions drawn from that data.”

Leighton said he wants to use the data to create a service-learning curriculum for his class where students would take this technology to area middle and secondary schools, as a demonstration of psychophysiology and how we can measure mental processes and behavior.

About James Hill

James G. Hill, an award-winning journalist and public relations writer, has been the Communications Specialist for the Office of Public Affairs at Portland Community College since November of 1999. A graduate of Portland State University, J... more »

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