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Psychology: a transforming field

Department marks six decades of preparing students for rewarding careers

Story by Kimberly Elworthy

The field of psychology has transformed since 1956, the year the Department of Psychology was founded at Wilfrid Laurier University's precursor, the Waterloo College of Arts.

During the past 60 years, the department has grown to include more than 30 professors who teach more than 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students in arts and science streams.

This year, the department is marking six decades of preparing students for careers in the field.

The celebrations kicked off with the annual Hunsberger Memorial Lecture in early November. Appropriately, the topic focused on neuroscience, a stream of psychology that has changed the field profoundly.

Rudy Eikelboom, professor and chair of Laurier’s Department of Psychology, recalls the shift from when he started studying psychology more than 30 years ago.

“When I started psychology at the graduate level, neuroscience was a very small discipline and largely medically related,” Eikelboom says.  “Neuroscience has exploded in the last 30 years, which has had a huge impact on psychology because we translate these neuroscience findings into the learning, memories and behaviours that animals and humans express.”

In contrast, the department has also become a leader in the stream of community psychology.

psychology student working with microscope

As well as being the 60th anniversary of the department, this year marks the 40th anniversary of Laurier’s Masters in Community Psychology program, Canada’s first and only program of its kind in English. The program allows students to understand individual behaviour in the context of a community. Students learn to understand where social systems may break down, resulting in an individual having a problem.

“Community psychology is different than neuroscience, but similar in applied practice – you have to have an interest in justice and marginalized populations,” Eikelboom says.

Eikelboom says a core strength of Laurier's Department of Psychology is the community service-learning (CSL) component of its courses. Psychology students must participate in a placement at a daycare facility, school, or service organization within the community to gain hands-on experience.

“Getting involved in an agency like a daycare when you’re learning about child psychology, you see what play is like for children, how it changes,” Eikelboom says. “You can lecture to students about these phases and theories of development in class, but for them to see it in person means a lot more.”

The department has incorporated a CSL component for more than 30 years. In 2006, Laurier received funding from the McConnell Foundation to create a university-wide Community Service-Learning office.

During the past 10 years, the Department of Psychology has also established the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience and the Centre for Community Research, Learning and Action.

The Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience houses six laboratories and seeks to answer how multiple perceptual streams are integrated and then translated into meaningful actions. The Centre for Community Research Learning and Action is an interdisciplinary research centre focused on developing community partnerships and producing research, learning and action that advances community well-being and social justice.

The past 60 years have seen the field of psychology adapt to emerging scientific advances while balancing its central relationship to community. Laurier's Department of Psychology has been there every step of the way.

“Humans have both aspirations and biology,” Eikelboom says. “Psychology has to recognize both aspects of who we are.”

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