VCU professor conducts research on electronics in the classroom

Photo by Michel Maulding

Naomi Ghahrai, Contributing Writer

Shirin Podury, Contributing Writer


VCU biology professor Tricia Smith is conducting research on the effects of electronics and classroom environments on learning in her cellular biology lecture class.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter — a chemical messenger of the brain — responsible for movement, motivation and cognition. Clinical research on brain imaging revealed excessive screen exposure stimulates dopamine similarly to drug addiction. Director of Neuroscience at UCLA Dr. Peter Whybrow calls computers “electronic cocaine” for the brain.

Increases in dopamine are associated with the reinforcing effects of drugs of abuse, according to research about addiction by the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse Nora Volkow, psychiatry professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine Joanna Fowler and nuclear medicine physician at Brookhaven National Laboratory Gene-Jack Wang.

Smith researched the molecular aspects of addictions with cannabinoid and opioid receptor function. With the rise in research relating technology and addiction, Smith became interested in the effects of electronics in her classroom.

“A lot of lecturers and I have noticed in classrooms [that] when students have laptops open, they often are looking at things that have nothing to do with the class,” Smith said.

At the beginning of the semester, Smith separated her lecture hall based on electronic usage. She informed her students about her project in lecture, and students who wanted to participate signed consent forms.

“I personally get extremely distracted when I’m taking notes by hand, and the person next to me is using their computer,” said Stephanie Molina, a sophomore student in Smith’s class. “Separating students who use technology and those who don’t creates an interesting atmosphere in the classroom. Honestly, this system has helped me concentrate.”

Students who consented to her research have to complete two surveys: one in the beginning of the semester and the other near the end of the semester. The surveys ask about students’ attendance, demographics, study tactics and subjective feelings. But Smith is not only looking at the correlation between grades and electronic usage.

“VCU is a very unique population. We’re very diverse both in terms of socioeconomic class and racial backgrounds and transfer students,” Smith said. “I’m just wondering if certain students can be affected more than others and how all these variables are interacting in a large lecture classroom.”

Smith plans to conduct this study for three years with the approval of an institutional review board, which would allow her to publish her findings. She and her team of graduate students will look at thousands of students in the coming years, the fall 2018 semester being the first of many.

Having gathered this research, Smith hopes to utilize her statistically significant data to change classroom settings. She believes her research will help enable changes in variables required to create an effective classroom environment.

“We’re going [to] use [this research] as a pilot study on how to intervene in the classroom in order to make it more accessible to everyone and ensure more people pass,” Smith said. “We can think of really cool interventions to spice up the classroom to allow more people to succeed. Honestly though, I have no idea what’s going to happen at the end of the day. That’s the exciting thing about science.”

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