Take a look at these neurons. Ignore the fact that several of the brain cells look like snowflakes and at least one looks like an avocado. Can you pick out the drawings done by experienced, professional neuroscientists? What about the ones made by undergraduate science students?
Researchers at King’s College London gave a simple task to 232 people: “Draw a neuron.” (Actually, being British, they said “Please draw a neuron.”) Some of the subjects were undergraduates in a neurobiology lecture. A small group were experienced neuroscientists who led their own research labs at the college. And a third, in-between group included graduate students and postdocs.
The researchers saw marked differences in how the three groups drew their brain cells. To confirm what they saw, they also pooled the drawings together and asked a new batch of subjects to sort the drawings into categories. These subjects agreed: the drawings clustered into distinct styles. The results are in the journal Science Education.
Did you pick out the pictures in the top row as examples from undergrads? Student sketches had lots of detail and were often labeled. In fact, they mostly resembled this classic textbook drawing from 1899, which the authors describe as the “archetype” of brain cells.
Hay thinks students need to internalize scientific concepts before they can play around with them and make their own hypotheses. “Scientists do not simply know information,” he says; “they put information to work to discover something new.” Failing that, they can create formidable Pictionary teams.
HAY, D., WILLIAMS, D., STAHL, D., & WINGATE, R. (2013). Using Drawings of the Brain Cell to Exhibit Expertise in Neuroscience: Exploring the Boundaries of Experimental Culture Science Education, 97 (3), 468-491 DOI: 10.1002/sce.21055
Images: Hay et al.