February 15, 2010

Students Explore the Effects of Drugs on the Body in First-Year Seminar

Interdisciplinary course is taught by James Dearworth, assistant professor of biology

The members of the Class of 2013 weren’t even born when the anti-drug public service announcements featuring the egg in the frying pan first started airing in 1987, but the “This is Your Brain on Drugs” message of those television ads has found new life in a First-Year Seminar.

Taught during the fall semester by James Dearworth, assistant professor of biology, the course covered how society perceives what drugs are, drug usage, and the physiological effects of drugs on people. Students compared readings by authors from various disciplines–including biology, neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, history, English, and theater/film–to understand different viewpoints and how opinions on this subject have changed over time.

“Being a neuroscientist, I have always been interested in knowing how the nervous system works. Given the opportunity to teach a First-Year Seminar, I thought an engaging topic to freshman might be to discuss how drugs affect our brains and our behaviors,” Dearworth says.

Szu-Ying (Sandy) Chen (Bangkok, Thailand) had Dearworth’s course at the top of her list of First-Year Seminars she was interested in taking. “Although I am geared more toward pursuing a degree in chemical engineering, I do plan on taking a minor in biochemistry because I have always been interested in understanding how chemicals affect our brain and body–which is exactly what I gained from this class,” she says.

The course covered the biological composition of drugs and how they affect the brain and people’s behavior. Initially, the class focused on two drugs: alcohol and mescaline, a hallucinogen derived from the peyote cactus, and originally used by Native Americans during religious ceremonies. Students were required to write papers on each of these drugs and advocate for either using the drug or argue against it.

Andrew Bahr (Richmond Hill, N.Y.) wasn’t sure what to expect when he signed up for the course, other than an emphasis on reading and writing. However, he was surprised by how much he got out of the class.

“I never heard of mescaline before in my life, but after listening to the lecture and writing a paper about it, I’m now smart enough to know not to use that drug,” he says.

At the end of the semester, students worked in teams to develop a presentation which argued either to legalize or to illegalize a drug–such as alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, heroin, or cocaine. They were required to define the drug, how it affects the brain, provide reasons why it should be legalized or illegalized, and propose a plan to carry out its legalization or illegalization. Students were required to find, read, and critique primary literature sources to support their presentations.

In addition to classroom work, the students traveled to Philadelphia to see the “Body Worlds 2 & The Brain” exhibit at the Franklin Institute. Included in the exhibit were plastinated lungs of smokers and human brains. They also went to College Theater’s presentation of Inherit the Wind at the Williams Center for the Arts and watched several movies, including the 1936 Hollywood classic Reefer Madness.

“Although freshmen are under the drinking age and drugs such as marijuana are illegal, a significant proportion of students will be pressured to try them,” says Dearworth. “My First-Year Seminar provides an open forum for discussing what these drugs are and how they are thought to affect the brain not only from a scientific perspective but also with regard to social and economical impacts. More importantly, I think it allows students to understand the risks that might be associated with taking a drug before they decide to do so. Therefore, they can make an informed decision. Looking back, I would have appreciated a course like this as a freshman.”

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