Your mind at work: Applying neuroscience in the classroom and outside of the lab

Like many lifelong learners and intellectually curious online students, you may think of your brain as your biggest asset: your mind is the center of your thoughts, your memories, the words you write down in assignments, and the knowledge you build from your lessons. But how much do you really know about how the brain works?

“One hundred years ago, our understanding of the brain was very limited,” says Dr. Jennifer Heerding. “Historically speaking, it’s fairly recently that we have been able to map out the circuits.” Heerding teaches in the field of neuroscience, a subject area that studies human and animal behavior by way of the biological and chemical mechanisms of the nervous system. “Think of a Venn diagram with circles for biology and psychology,” suggests Heerding. “Neuroscience is the intersection—and it's not a little tiny slice. There is a lot of psychology and biology in the field of neuroscience.”

Heerding and other expert faculty members have created courses for Penn LPS Online’s Certificate in Neuroscience, a four-course, for-credit program of study designed to help students understand the brain, the nervous system, and the neural basis of behavior. “The brain helps us think and move and plan, but it is also monitoring your heart rate, your blood pressure, your blood glucose levels, your pH level, your temperature, and how much sodium is in your body,” Heerding explains. “We use different areas of the brain for different functions, but the brain is active all the time.”

Since the brain oversees so many of the body’s processes—from hormone regulation to chemical addiction—it’s easy to see how neurological knowledge could benefit anyone in almost any stage of life. “Understanding how the brain works is applicable to so many fields—because it's such a broad field itself,” says Heerding. “A casual course taker might just find the subject interesting. A lot of students come into the field because they have a parent or relative with anxiety or depression or OCD, or they have it themselves, and they want to understand it. Or, if someone has an existing career that would benefit from understanding how the brain works, the certificate would fill that need—they would get a survey of the field and then in-depth coursework in three different areas.”

Completing the Penn LPS Online Certificate in Neuroscience

The Penn LPS Online Certificate in Neuroscience is designed to guide students through the foundations of the field, then provide opportunities to dive deeper into more specialized subjects. “The certificate program is obviously condensed, so we just wanted to hit the highlights,” explains Heerding, who is also the Associate Director of the Biological Basis of Behavior major for Penn School of Arts and Sciences undergraduates. “Each class is a full Penn class. Normally we would teach that material in 15 weeks—Penn LPS Online students get it in 8 weeks. It is going to be an intensive learning experience, so the student who wants to succeed is going to have to be dedicated,” she adds.

Whether you are pursuing the full Certificate in Neuroscience or enrolling in individual courses, you start with Neuroscience 100: Introduction to Neuroscience. “The intro class is a survey that does a little bit of everything within neuroscience. We hope that students can identify different areas that are interesting to them,” says Heerding.  

Once the introductory course is complete, students are prepared to branch off into courses that align with their professional goals or personal interests. Students of psychology and social behavior may choose to explore the neural processes underlying human and animal behavior in Behavioral Neuroscience and Hormones, Brain, and Behavior. Heerding is teaching a course on Autonomic Pharmacology, which examines the mechanisms of drugs that help regulate various physiological functions such as blood pressure, and students have another opportunity to study the effects of drugs in Psychopharmacology, which focuses on drugs used to treat the nervous system itself. This branch of neuroscience is useful knowledge for students who are preparing for health professions or who simply want to know how different classes of drugs affect the brain.  

Heerding notes that all of the certificate instructors are Penn faculty members who are teaching their own specializations—or, in a few instances, their own interests. “The instructor for The Neuroscience of Music is a naturally talented musician who has a PhD in neuroscience, which led him to be interested in the neuroscience behind music,” says Heerding, enumerating some of the neurological questions the course might explore: “Why do we enjoy music? Why does music affect memory or emotion? Sometimes some music can actually evoke goosebumps when nothing is physically happening to your body. How does that happen? What's going on in your brain?”

The materials for each asynchronous course include video lectures, assigned readings, and problem sets. “In neuroscience, there are certain basic facts we have to teach students—there's no interpretation or discussion of, for example, how a neuron works,” says Heerding. “But honestly, I think that online students get more of a hands-on learning environment.” For example: in addition to the assigned readings and video lectures, which Heerding reminds students can be watched as often as needed (“I know I did it when I could, as an undergraduate,” she reflects), there are classroom discussion boards and online office hours so instructors can address student questions.

Then there are the problem sets, which are designed to help students retain information by actively engaging them in learning and discovery. Heerding gives an example from her own class. “In Autonomic Pharmacology, I talk a lot about blood pressure regulation, which is controlled by the brain. The heart has its own intrinsic function, but it can't tell if your blood pressure went up or down. So for people with high blood pressure, there are drugs that affect neural processes to regulate blood pressure.”

“In class, I'll present: Here's how the brain regulates your blood pressure. Here's how it knows what your blood pressure is. Here's what it does if it goes too high or gets too low,” she continues. “I give you all the puzzle pieces, and then the problem set is: now that you know this system and how these receptors can be activated by the brain, how do you think this drug works to lower blood pressure? Students can use the information that I provide to understand how drugs work and how disease states affect the system.”

Puzzling out the solution to questions like the one above helps students understand the material and develop a solid knowledge base; at the same time, practicing critical problem-solving skills can prepare students to think nimbly and holistically about the specific challenges they face in their own careers. “It’s all about the knowledge, and being able to understand and use that information to your advantage in any job or situation,” says Heerding. “I can’t even begin to guess how all the different students will use this information.” 

Preparing for neuroscience in the online classroom

Students who register in Introduction to Neuroscience may observe an unusual feature: a mandatory learning assessment module that must be completed before the course begins. The tool is designed not just to assess your baseline knowledge of biology, chemistry, and physics, but to provide resources and materials to help you learn key concepts before progressing to the course. In that respect, the tool is educational more than evaluative.

“What we wanted to do is make sure the Penn LPS Online students were prepared, because Introduction to Neuroscience is not watered down; it is an 8-week intensive Penn course,” explains Heerding. “If a student starts the course without understanding certain basic concepts, they are not set up to succeed in the class—and that’s not fair.”

To even the playing field, the Neuroscience team took the information learned from teaching and learning studies and used it to build a module that new Neuroscience students can take before beginning the course. “We’ve been teaching the introductory class to our Biological Basis of Behavior students for more than 30 years,” observes Heerding. “We have found that there are certain concepts that help students succeed in the class.” For example, the concepts of water cohesion and osmosis are important in understanding how molecules can move across a membrane in the body. “Those are concepts we don’t teach in Introduction to Neuroscience because they’re not neuroscience concepts, they’re chemistry,” says Heerding. “But if you don’t already understand them, it’s going to be very hard to pick them up when they are used to explain ion diffusion.”

Hence the instructional elements of the assessment tool: if you stayed home sick the day your high school chemistry class covered the electrical properties of ions, you’ll have a chance to get caught up before the first day of neuroscience. “Students who already understand the material can go very quickly through the module,” says Heerding. “Students who need more background are given resources to learn these underlying concepts and demonstrate their success.” 

Applying neuroscience in careers beyond the lab

The Certificate in Neuroscience has obvious advantages for students with careers in science and medicine: medical and veterinary schools have entire modules on neuroscience, and anyone preparing for a health profession would benefit from applied instruction in Penn LPS Online’s interactive platform and small class sizes. At the University of Pennsylvania, which employs numerous research technicians and lab managers who assist in running experiments, Heerding sees possibilities for staff without graduate degrees to contribute meaningful insights. “Imagine you’re studying memory in mice, but there’s construction going on,” she says. “That’s going to generate noise and vibrations that can be felt or heard by the mice. Noise stress affects people; it certainly affects animals. So you might learn about noise stress in a neuroscience course and think, ‘Hey, maybe this is affecting the behavior of the mice.’”

But even among the undergraduates Heerding has taught in the Biological Basis of Behavior program, there is no single career outcome from completing a course of study in neuroscience; her students find their way to a number of different career paths, and she can think of still others. “Human resources professionals need to know how people think, how people make decisions, what stress does to people,” she lists. “Teachers. Marketers. Lawyers.”

Imagine, for example, a lawyer who wants to work for a biopharmaceutical company, or who specializes in law and policy concerning substance abuse. “To be able to walk into a courtroom and understand the science behind these neurological issues!” says Heerding. “Most lawyers have a background in political science or the humanities, but there are a lot of different kinds of law where neuroscience would be pertinent.” As another example from the humanities, Heerding points to journalists and columnists who cover a science beat for newspapers and magazines. “Imagine a writer who wants to write about topics related to neuroscience, like the opioid epidemic, the methamphetamine epidemic, or suicide,” she says.

As for what applications and connections Penn LPS Online neuroscience students might make in the future, Heerding sees no limit. “The science is changing daily,” she says. “We have so much more knowledge than we did a hundred years ago. I cannot imagine how much we can understand a hundred years from now.”

The Penn LPS Online Certificate in Neuroscience is open for enrollment. Although certificate students and individual course takers must first complete NEUR 100: Introduction to Neuroscience before enrolling in additional neuroscience courses, you can enroll in individual courses without committing to the entire certificate. If you want more information, please visit our certificate page.

Apply Today

Ready to apply to Penn LPS Online?

Apply Now

Learn more about Penn LPS Online