To circumvent the many problems in teaching neurophysiology as a “wet lab,” we developed SWIMMY, a virtual fish that swims by moving its virtual tail by means of a virtual neural circuit. SWIMMY diminishes the need for expensive equipment, troubleshooting, and manual skills that require practice. Also, SWIMMY effectively replaces live preparations, which some students find objectionable.
Using SWIMMY, students (1) review the basics of neurophysiology, (2) identify the neurons in the circuit, (3) ascertain the neurons’ synaptic interconnections, (4) discover which cells generate the motor pattern of swimming, (5) discover how the rhythm is generated, and finally (6) use an animation that corresponds to the activity of the motoneurons to discover the behavioral effects produced by various lesions and explain them in terms of their neural underpinnings. SWIMMY is a genuine inquiry-based exercise producing data that requires individual thought and interpretation. It is neither a cookbook exercise nor a demonstration.
We have used SWIMMY for several terms with great success. SWIMMY solidifies students’ understanding of material learned in traditional lecture courses because they must apply the concepts. Student ratings of SWIMMY have been very positive, particularly ratings from students who have also been exposed to a “wet” neurophysiology lab.
Because SWIMMY requires only computers for implementation and makes minimal demands on instructional resources, it provides for a great deal of flexibility. Instructors could use SWIMMY as part of a traditional lab course, as a classroom exercise, in distance learning, or in blended instructional formats (internet with classroom). SWIMMY is now available for free online complete with student and instructor manuals at http://mdcune.psych.ucla.edu.