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Psychology Students Flock to New, High-Tech Demonstration Lab


by Andrew Westoll

A new, state-of-the-art demonstration lab in psychology is changing the way students engage with the field, and helps position UTSC at the forefront of high-tech undergraduate education.

On the third floor of the Science Wing, through a nondescript door, an old classroom has been renovated into a Shangri-La for psychology professors and their students. Chair of the psychology department at UTSC Dr. John Bassili spearheaded the efforts to get such a lab in response to a growing feeling that undergraduate students weren’t getting a full sense of the exciting revolutions taking place in the field.

“Psychology was in danger of losing the kind of richness that students need in order to get a good feel for what is really happening in the field,” says Bassili, pointing to the recent explosion in research on brain imaging of live humans. “In the past, psychology undergrads at UTSC were taught procedures in classrooms, mainly through lectures and exercises they carried out elsewhere. There were few hands-on, equipment-linked experiences for them. Now, students can go into our new demonstration laboratory, collect data with specialized equipment and analyze the results, all in one place.”

Upon first entering the lab, one gets the feeling something unique takes place here. Thirty-five new laptops sit atop desk-space arranged in a horseshoe configuration, leaving the centre of the room empty. Above the desks, small microphones hang down from the ceiling, a professional-grade LCD projector points toward a blank wall, and two high-definition cameras sit in their swivel cases.

Bassili retrieves a wireless tablet controller from its compartment on the wall, and with a few finger-taps he brings the lights down, the screen drops, and the cameras begin to dance above our heads.

“We’ve created new lab courses that take advantage of this new way of thinking,” says Bassili. “Take our brain imaging course. Professors can bring real research equipment, like a transcranial magnetic stimulation machine, into the centre of the room, and students can learn how to use these very expensive, cutting-edge pieces of equipment. Students can study the procedure from above through the cameras, and then analyze the resulting images on their laptops.”

In the new brain imaging course, which will be offered in the Winter but which quickly filled to capacity,  undergraduates will gain in-depth experience with four methodologies: Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fRMI), electroencephalogram (EEG), transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). The new demonstration lab is specially designed to host this sort of equipment, right down to the built-in vacuum system in the floor that cools the TMS machine. Also, the classroom is outfitted with live video conferencing capabilities, which means students can ‘sit-in’ on events held at other sites.

“Very few universities are doing this high-tech stuff at the undergraduate level, says Bassili. In addition to brain imaging, the lab hosts a psychophysiology course, and other courses that cover methodology, technology and data analysis.

 “Students are flocking to these cutting edge courses,” says Bassili. “It’s technical, it’s relevant, and they just love it. They know it’s where the future lies, and we’re providing them the opportunity to get in on the act of discovery.”

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