Using a Paradigm Shift to Teach Neurobiology and the Nature of Science - a

Sally G Hoskins


Decades ago, classic experiments established the phenomenon of neural induction (Spemann and Mangold, 1924; Holtfreter, 1933). It appeared clear that amphibian ectoderm was pre-programmed to form epidermis, and that the neural phenotype was induced by a chemical signal from mesoderm. The ectoderm makes skin, unless induced to make nervous system model appeared in many textbooks. This interpretation, however, was not simply incorrect but 180 degrees out of alignment with the actual situation. As subsequently demonstrated, the default state of amphibian ectoderm is neuronal, and the expression of the epidermal phenotype requires cell signaling (Hemmati Brivanlou and Melton, 1992; 1994; 1997). In this activity, students are presented with key experiments in a stepwise fashion. At several points, they work in groups to devise models that explain particular experimental results. The stepwise presentation of results mirrors the history of discoveries n this experimental system. Eventually, faced with seemingly contradictory data, students must revise their models substantially and in doing so, experience the paradigm shift. The lesson also examines the history of this paradigm shift. Data inconsistent with the epidermal default model were published years before the neural default model was proposed, but the significance of the surprising new data was underemphasized by the scientists who made the discovery. Discussing this situation provides insight into how science works and highlights the possibility that working scientists may become entrenched in prevailing paradigms. Such nature of science discussions emphasize research as a human activity, and help to dispel student misconceptions about science and scientists.

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