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.
Sketches made by lab leaders are on the bottom row. These highly experienced scientists were more likely to make abstract or stylized drawings. Instead of imitating a textbook picture, they drew from their own personal understanding of what a neuron is. (Or possibly, for the scientist on the bottom left, what a martini glass is.)
The graduate students and postdocs, whose drawings are in the middle row, seemed to fall somewhere in between. They didn't label their drawings like undergrads did, and they didn't include quite so much detail. Their neurons were more likely to bend, and the nuclei of the cells were often hidden—in other words, the cells looked more like they would under a microscope, rather than on a textbook page. But they weren't quite as simplified and abstracted as the lab leaders'.
Lead author David Hay says that the three drawing styles represent "different cultures." Undergraduate students spit out textbook images; scientists in training draw on their own observations; and more experienced scientists make "highly conceptual" drawings that represent their personal judgment.
This matters because "learning to reproduce the textbook images is NOT learning science," Hay says. Even postdoctoral researchers didn't seem to have internalized the concept as much as the lab leaders had. However, Hay thinks there are ways that experienced scientists can help students gain perspective.
One way might be by physically acting out scientific ideas. After Hay and his coauthors had students try a couple such exercises—for example, walking on different paths through a laboratory to mimic how neurons grow—the students produced drawings that were more creative and less like the textbook.
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.