Inside a tiny laboratory the size of a closet at UW-Eau Claire Wednesday afternoon, a small group of seventh-graders watched with awe as a psychology student draped an electrode net over her head to demonstrate how brain specialists can use an electroencephalogram to test electrical brain waves.
Around the corner, another group of students giggled while playing an interactive game meant to teach them about the prisoner’s dilemma and social psychology.
In another lab down the hall, other students were listening intently — some with their eyebrows furrowed in deep thought, others with their mouths agape in wonder — as professor Dave Jewett explained how his students train rats to communicate whether they’re hungry or not with two buttons.
Those sessions were all part of a field trip a group of about 30 DeLong Middle School seventh-graders took Wednesday as the culmination to the psychology unit in their social studies class.
“Psychology was a really fun unit in class, and it’s also kind of one of my interests for when I’m older — well, being a psychologist,” 12-year-old Kaatya Modl said. “I think this has been pretty fun, and I’ve learned a lot.”
The field trip marks the first collaboration between UW-Eau Claire’s psychology department and the school district, said Lori Bica, professor of psychology at UW-Eau Claire and Eau Claire school board member.
Bica said the original idea emerged from a professional development meeting where university professors in the social sciences areas and Eau Claire middle and high school social studies teachers discussed ways students can learn more about future opportunities in these fields.
As part of seventh-grade curriculum in Eau Claire schools, social studies for the year is composed of small, introductory units about each major branch of the social sciences. But still, many students leave middle and sometimes high school without a real awareness of what studying those topics actually looks like, she said.
“We want middle and high school students to know that this is what psychology is, this is sociology, this is economics, this is geography,” Bica said. “I hope they leave understanding the specializations and can answer questions like ‘How do you conduct psychological research?’ and ‘What kind of problems are psychologists are interested in?’”
Brent Wathke, DeLong social studies teacher, said he was ecstatic at the idea for a field trip that would allow his students to further explore psychology, as well as a college campus.
“I think it’s good for them to see this in a classroom like this,” Wathke said. “It’ll hopefully spark an interest in post-secondary education, and anytime we can do that, we will. This is so good for them.”
Modl said the highlight of the field trip for her was a rat demonstration where Carla Lagorio, a psychology professor, showed the class how rats can be trained to perform simple tasks like touching their nose to a Christmas tree etched on the side of an aquarium through repetition and rewards of sugar pellets.
“That rat thing was super cool, like that had me really intrigued,” Modl said, grinning ear to ear. “Seeing it go back and forth and knowing what to do after such a little amount of time was cool. I had no idea you could train a rat in that short an amount of time.”
In addition, Modl said the experience also excited her about the prospect of college — although that’s still “a ways off” for her, and campus still seems big and a little scary.
“It’s fun because you get to see what you’re doing when you’re older and be in that environment,” Modl said. “It’s been a fun day.”
“And I even got out of school for it,” Modl added after some thought, giggling to herself.