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St. Olaf gathers faculty for national psych workshop

By Kari VanDerVeen
July 9, 2007

Community college instructors from all corners of the country are gathering at St. Olaf this week to explore ways of getting students in introductory psychology courses to think like scientists.

A three-day workshop titled "Tried and True: Using Investigative Science Activities in Your Introductory Psychology Course" will be held at St. Olaf July 9-11. It will follow an identical workshop held May 21-23 at Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids, Minn.

St. Olaf Professor of Psychology Howard Thorsheim '63 and Itasca Community College Faculty Associate Bob Gephart partnered to create the workshops, which are funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and supported by Project Kaleidoscope, a national organization that advocates for strong undergraduate science programs.

The goal of the workshops is twofold. The first is to increase the number of community college instructors teaching scientific psychology. The workshops will encourage instructors to use science in teaching psychology by introducing them to investigative psychophysiology -- the study of how what one thinks and feels affects his or her physical health -- laboratory exercises.

During the workshops, instructors will take on the role of students, exploring psychophysiology through hands-on exercises. Each workshop participant will learn how to use the BIOPAC MP40, a device that measures physical responses such as eye movement, heart rate, muscle activity and brain waves.

Each of the community college instructors will receive the $500 piece of equipment, a provision Thorsheim says he and Gephart wrote into their NSF grant proposal.

"We wanted teachers to leave the workshop with more than just a lesson plan," Thorsheim says. "We also wanted them to have the equipment needed to incorporate research-based learning into their introductory psychology course."

Another goal of the workshops is to increase the number of psychology students who chose careers in the field of science. In their grant proposal, Thorsheim and Gephart note that since 1993, enrollment in two-year colleges has increased 100 percent while enrollment in private four-year colleges and public four-year colleges has increased just 13 and 17 percent, respectively. They also cite research stating that since 1990, the number of students across the country taking psychology courses has increased 35 percent.

Given the large number of post-secondary students who will be enrolled in community colleges and the number of those students likely to enroll in psychology courses, Thorsheim said it is a good place to introduce students to the scientific method and encourage them to think critically about the issues studied in psychology.

"We're not creating scientists with this," Gephart says. "We're working on getting people to think like scientists."

The first workshop at Itasca Community College will have room for 10 participants. Those participants will then assist with the instruction of the 40 participants -- carefully selected to represent each corner of the country -- who will attend the workshop at St. Olaf. Thorsheim says he's already received enough interest in this summer's workshops to fill up all of the available slots and then some at St. Olaf.

Thorsheim and Gephart's hope is to develop a national workshop network in which each workshop participant will turn around and lead a workshop in the area of the country where he or she lives, eventually creating a network of workshops available to instructors at all 1,500 community colleges throughout the United States.

Thorsheim and Gephart, who designed the model, also will serve as instructors at this summer's workshops. Working together shouldn't be hard for the two, given that their professional relationship is rooted in a friendship that began with a discussion of their shared interests.

The two met and began talking about their interests at a conference several years ago, and soon Gephart was visiting St. Olaf to take a closer look at Thorsheim's laboratory work in psychophysiology. Their mutual interests led them to work together to create their national workshop model and secure the NSF grant, as well as support from Project Kaleidoscope. It also has helped create a unique partnership between St. Olaf and Itasca Community College.

Contact David Gonnerman at 507-786-3315 or