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The psychology department hasn’t waited until moving into new headquarters in Oechsle Hall next year to create innovations in its curriculum.

Gabrielle Britton, who joined the faculty this year as assistant professor of psychology, is introducing some of the new opportunities for students. In her Physiological Psychology class this fall, which examines the neural, hormonal, and physiological bases of animal and human behavior, students injected female and male hormones into rats and studied the behavioral effects. On a different group of rats, they conducted surgery to create lesions in different parts of the anesthetized rats’ brains, then sutured them up afterwards; all of the animals survived. They followed up with learning experiments to determine the effects of the lesions.

“Students get to see how very small areas of the brain are controlling different aspects of learning,” says Ann McGillicuddy-DeLisi, Marshall R. Metzgar Professor and head of psychology. “It’s just worked beautifully. In the last lab of the semester, students [did] brain slides to see how the brain has changed.”

Britton, whose research interests include neurobiology of learning and memory, also is designing a new course on neurophysiology, which takes an in-depth look at brain cells.

“As far as we know, there are no liberal arts colleges and only a few universities that offer a course on this,” says McGillicuddy-DeLisi.

The department will purchase equipment for the course to allow students to conduct intercellular recordings of animals. The instruments will monitor the neural signals sent through cells – expressed in electrical activity — while another part of the subject’s brain is being stimulated.

Jeannine Pinto, also appointed assistant professor of psychology this year, is incorporating new methods of stimuli into the department’s introductory course and perception and research design classes. For example, strips of light are created and perceived as representing walking figures.

McGillicuddy-DeLisi will introduce a new course next semester, Advanced Developmental Psychology, which will cover different topics in psychology from one semester to the next. The first subject will be child psychology. Students will be placed in area schools to participate in mathematics instruction and observe gender differences in cognition among children from grades four through 12. Data will be collected through questionnaires, test scores, and personal interviews about the school children’s feelings about math.

In weekly lab seminars, the Advanced Developmental Psychology students will discuss readings and conduct experiments to judge the effects of different hormonal levels on rats’ ability to negotiate space. For example, rats will be placed in a pool of water with a platform and signals will be placed on the sides of the pool for orientation. Students will observe the differences in how well rats injected with varying does of testosterone and/or estrogen find the platform.

Susan Basow, Charles A. Dana Professor of Psychology, will teach a new Values in Science/Technology (VAST) course on Body Politics. The interdisciplinary course will provide a critical evaluation of the political nature of body ideals and the significance of the body in scientific thought and feminist theory. Students will examine how science, technology, social norms, and values shape perceptions of sexual and racial differences, focusing particularly on appearance norms, sexual norms, reproductive codes, and “medicalization.”

Last school year, John Shaw, assistant professor of psychology, initiated a well-received VAST course entitled Ethical and Legal Challenges of the New Genomics, says McGillicuddy-DeLisi. The class explores many of the ethical and legal challenges raised by scientific breakthroughs in several areas of the new genomics, including genetic testing for disease susceptibility, prenatal genetic testing, gene therapy, and cloning and other reproductive technologies.

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