Publications and Research

Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 2008


Decades ago, classic experiments established the phenomenon of “neural induction” (Spemann and Mangold, 1924; Holtfreter, 1933). It appeared clear that amphibian ectoderm was pre-programmed to form epidermis, and that the neural phenotype was induced by a chemical signal from mesoderm. The “ectoderm makes skin, unless induced to make nervous system” model appeared in many textbooks. This interpretation, however, was not simply incorrect but 180 degrees out of alignment with the actual situation. As subsequently demonstrated, the default state of amphibian ectoderm is neuronal, and the expression of the epidermal phenotype requires cell signaling (Hemmati-Brivanlou and Melton, 1992; 1994; 1997). In this activity, students are presented with key experiments in a stepwise fashion. At several points, they work in groups to devise models that explain particular experimental results. The stepwise presentation of results mirrors the history of discoveries in this experimental system. Eventually, faced with seemingly contradictory data, students must revise their models substantially and in doing so, experience the paradigm shift. The lesson also examines the history of this paradigm shift. Data inconsistent with the “epidermal default” model were published years before the “neural default” model was proposed, but the significance of the surprising new data was underemphasized by the scientists who made the discovery. Discussing this situation provides insight into how science works and highlights the possibility that working scientists may become entrenched in prevailing paradigms. Such “nature of science” discussions emphasize research as a human activity, and help to dispel student misconceptions about science and scientists.


This article originally appeared in The Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education, available at DOI:



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.