Over the past couple decades lots of companies have come out with brain games that are supposed to increase brain function through training. A recent article in Nature pretty definitively shows that these supposed generalized brain training exercises don’t do much of anything, a result that I think might speak to interdisciplinary science teaching as well.
The authors of the brain games study asked for volunteers from the TV audience of a BBC show. They split the ten thousand or so volunteers they got into three groups. Two of the groups got different sets of brain exercises. The third group just had to search the web, basically, and was a control. The authors gave a battery of cognitive tasks to each participant before and after 6 weeks of doing the brain exercises. While participants showed a bit of improvement on some of the cognitive tasks, the amount of improvement was the same for all treatments, including the control. Moreover, even when participants were tested on cognitive tasks that were very similar to the brain exercises they practiced, the improvement was no greater than the controls. Brain exercises just don’t seem to work.
In biology classes, we’re not teaching generic brain exercises so this study is not strictly applicable, but I happened to read it at the same time as I’m reading a set of studies on integrating more quantitative thinking and math into the undergraduate biology curriculum. The journal CBE Life Sciences recently published a special issue on integrating biology and mathematics. They have a number of interesting studies and essays on approaches people have tried for getting more math into undergraduate biology. I would definitely recommend scanning through the issue online.
One of the themes in many of the classes discussed in this special issue is of trying to sprinkle math throughout a biology class, and vis-versa, using biological examples in a math class. We try to do the same thing in some of our virtual biology labs, where rather than simply describing some phenomenon, we embed quantitative skills into the biological observations and experiments. Our interactive chapters take this one step further, weaving together calculations and quantitative interpretation of experiments with more standard descriptions of ecological phenomenon. For instance, in our Population Growth chapter, students learn about density dependence versus independence by calculating (there’s the quantification) the drop in equilibrium population sizes when a population is exposed to a disease (density-dependent) vs. a storm (density-independent). They then interpret this in light of the logistic growth equation, which they have just spent several pages working with.
To me, it seems like the BBC study on brain games strongly supports the approach of putting the math and the biology together into very specific case studies, and conversely, strongly discourages the idea of simply requiring a calculus course for all biology majors. As with much other research, the BBC study suggests that transfer of knowledge from one domain to another is quite rare. The BBC participants did improve a lot on the specific games they were playing – they just didn’t improve on related tests. Math skills learned in a math class are a little different than brain games. Certainly, math students understand the mathematical concepts in our biology classes much faster than those without a math background. But to some extent, I think studies like this BBC one still have a lot to tell us. If we want our students to be able to use specific quantitative skills in biology, they suggest that we’re much more likely to succeed if we teach those skills directly in a biological context.