The Human Brain and Behavior have always been the enigma of our body. One of the few science elective courses taught in English, The Science of Experiments: Understanding Human Emotions, Beliefs, and Behaviors from Data (Science of Experiments) gives opportunities for students to attain general knowledge on the functions of the brain, its related experiments and how to analyze experimental results. Professor Christian Wallraven (Department of Brain and Cognitive Engineering) states in his syllabus that this class is open to anyone who is fluent in English and has taken high school math. A unique combination of statistics, brain science, and scientific theory, this course allows students to learn how psychology has developed over the years.
Due to its profoundly long course name, students may be confused about what this course teaches. However, it is the name that best illustrates the course itself, which covers parts of statistics, brain science, psychology and the basic knowledge of experiments. Even though the course is taught based on the traditional lecture method, the class is entertaining because of its diverse content and the professor’s unique sense of humor.
Many students majoring in humanities can be reluctant to take this subject, because they may think other students majoring in natural sciences or engineering would excel in the course, lowering their chances to receive good grades. However, this is not the case as the professor starts from very fundamental concepts of statistics and scientific theory. It is also true that he covers a vast amount of course material each class; thus, a revision of the notes after class is a prerequisite to succeed in class.
Creating Our Own Data
Until the midterm, the course covers what experiments are, and how to analyze the contrived data. This section is important because to understand experiments, it is crucial to first learn the process in which a specific set of data can be utilized in drawing a certain conclusion. Although it may be tough and challenging for students, Professor Wallraven provides plenty of statistical graphs such as boxplots, histograms, and scatterplots so students can approach statistics more easily. The professor once collected students’ data on the number of hours they sleep and their height. He then proceeded in making a graph and running various statistical tests. This indirect participation of students allows them to easily comprehend the core concepts in statistics, which can be difficult to grasp.
Unraveling the Mysteries of the Human Brain
As soon as the statistics section ends, the course slightly shifts to focus on brain science and psychology. In this latter section, students learn how the brain functions, receives and interprets signals from the external environment. The professor shows many relevant experiments and videos. From this, the students can comprehend that human perception is not absolute and they learn how the brain processes various stimuli. For instance, he showed the class a video illustrating the hollow mask illusion, which refers to a kind of an optical illusion that makes the concave part of a mask seem like the face part of the mask. As such, the videos, tests and experiments are alluring to students and help them to truly appreciate the mysteries of the human brain.
Interview with Professor
GT: What were your motivations behind creating this course?
It is actually a very simple story. I had studied physics, and when I went on to study neuroscience people in the field would often refer to basic experiments in psychology within their academic discourse. But I realized that they are never learnt together. For example, when we were studying learning, we would discuss Pavlov’s dog experiment. When we were discussing something else, we would look at Skinner and so on. However, there were no courses that put together these experiments which hold significance in that they shaped how people think about the brain or human existence. So when I came to KU, I just made it myself. It is a class I have always wanted to take, but never had a chance to.
GT: Why are midterms and finals conducted through Blackboard, not in an offline setting?
When the new blackboard system came out, one good aspect of it as a teacher was that it allowed online test taking. It is an efficient way of working because it allows me to focus more on short answer questions. Similarly, the reason I make it open-book is I think exams have limited usefulness. The real questions I test people on are not the multiple-choice questions, but rather are short-answer questions. That I can do very well using the blackboard system.
GT: What do you hope students could learn from enrolling in this course?
There are a couple things. First of all, it is an English class, so obviously for Korean students it is a way to get exposed to English not as in English discussion but as in science. For the topics, I want to teach famous experiments and science. The reason I included statistics in the curriculum is I felt statistics is usually taught in a hard way, making people afraid of it. I wanted to say we have to know some fundamental concepts because, after all, experiments are based on data and statistics. However, at the same time Statistics is not something to be scared of.
GT: Are there any changes or improvements you want to make for this course?
I just feel that there are many more interesting experiments and many more things I can try to make statistics appear easier. So at some point, I think about splitting the two sections apart. However, I would then lose something because I like the fact that the two sections are taught together. I like the course as it is in its current unique combination. One thing I want to try is to get people to conduct an experiment themselves. I am still thinking of ways of developing a way so students can do that.
GT: Do you have any last words for the students?
For KU students, I feel that academic motivations are generally high but the culture between the teacher and students is not as interactive. In Germany, where I am from, motivations can be different, but the culture was relatively interactive. I think both cultures can learn from each other.
▲ Professor Christian Wallraven. PHOTOGRAPHED BY KIM SEUNG HYE