Dartmouth wins NSF grant for neuroscience center

by Kelsey Blodget | 2/4/05 6:00am

A team of Dartmouth researchers headed by former Dean of the Faculty and cognitive neuroscience pioneer Michael Gazzaniga beat out dozens of colleges across the nation Tuesday to receive the National Science Foundation's $21.8 million grant, the largest peer-reviewed grant ever awarded to the College, to establish a new Center for Cognitive and Educational Neuroscience.

The competitive applicant pool was comprised of 60 colleges including other Ivy League institutions and prestigious universities, but NSF ultimately chose Dartmouth, Carnegie Mellon University, Boston College, and the University of Washington to accommodate the new neuroscience centers.

"It doesn't mean that the other schools are at all bad, they just didn't have everything integrated as well as we did," Gazzaniga said.

Dartmouth's CCEN will study the relationship between the science of learning and the practice of learning in the classroom.

"For years, someone would come up with an idea for teaching something, find out the method doesn't work five years later, and then move onto the next fad," education and psychology professor Kevin Dunbar, one of the CCEN's co-principal investigators, said. "But there was no science underlying it."

Dartmouth spearheaded the creation of educational neuroscience, a new academic field, in response to this problem. The study of how the brain learns will shed light on how best to instruct children in science, math, reading and language.

Dunbar said educational neuroscience can also help explain why certain topics, like physics, are so difficult to learn.

"Many people start off with the wrong understanding," Dunbar said. "By scanning people's brains, we found that people were taking their old theory and inhibiting it, and laying down a new theory on top of it. People spend a lot of mental energy inhibiting the wrong theories."

Dunbar joins the other co-principal investigators -- professors Laura-Ann Petitto, Todd Heatherton and Scott Grafton -- in his hope that CCEN's research will help them understand how to effectively teach the correct theories to children at a younger age.

The Dartmouth group had been carefully orchestrating parts of the potential center for the past two years before being awarded the grant, Petitto said. Dartmouth won the grant because of the interdisciplinary nature of its program, and also because of its international reputation in the fields of cognitive neuroscience and brain imaging, she added.

The Math Department, Native American Studies Department, Education, Department, the Montshire Museum, the College library, schools in the Marshall Islands and approximately 20 schools in four regions of the Upper Valley will all help shape CCEN's research.

"Solid research will be implemented in meaningful ways out in the community," Petitto said. "It's not just individual researchers doing their work; it will be a mutual, two-way interaction between educational experts and scientists."

Petitto stressed that the CCEN will be an interdisciplinary venture. The Native American Department, for example, will play an integral part in helping CCEN understand the bilingual brain process because of the particular way Native Americans learn a new language. CCEN also hopes to work with the Native American Department in researching the best way to preserve the use of Native American languages.

CCEN starts receiving funding Apr. 1 and plans to move its offices into the renovated southeast wing on the first floor of Baker Library.

Gazzaniga said receiving a peer-reviewed grant after the College's poor placing in the recent London Times' rankings is a very positive step.

"It means we were positively reviewed by our peers in a competitive marketplace," he said. "It's very exciting. It was a very intricate, difficult application process. This is a big deal."

Petitto shared Gazzaniga's excitement.

"Dartmouth is contributing to a revolution in the history of education that has been embraced by the nation and the world," Petitto said. "This is a momentous time in the College's history."