The Science of Sleep


Herve Collin, Department of Math and Science, Kapi'olani Community College

Course Learning Goals for Instructors and Students

Course Description


Kapi'olani Community College's The Science of Sleep (PHYL 160) is an interdisciplinary science course that fulfills the core undergraduate requirement in the life sciences for non-majors. The course provides an overview of the anatomy and physiology of the central nervous system as it is related to sleep, explores the impact of sleep deprivation on individuals, and engages students in authentic research as they conduct their own sleep experiment. The civic problem at the center of course is "sleep debt," a term used to describe the cumulative effect of not getting enough sleep, and which has been identified by the NIH as serious and growing problem with wide ranging consequences for our mental and physical health, as well as for public safety. Unlike many other topics, sleep, and the lack of it, is something that everyone has experienced, and the knowledge the students gain about their own sleep has immediate relevance to their life and health.


Sleep is truly an interdisciplinary problem, and students must understand and be able to present concepts from biology (sleep phylogeny, circadian rhythms in nature, or sleep physiology), psychology (dreaming, primary insomnia, or excessive sleepiness), history (attitudes about and requirements for sleep change over time and are culturally specific) and neuroscience (sleep/wake regulation, maturational changes related to sleep or sleep disorders). Hands-on learning and guided scientific experimentation and data analysis is emphasized as students construct research project to assess their own sleep debt through nightly sleep journals, sleep surveys and actigraphy monitoring to record rest/activity cycles. This course, which was developed and supported by a grant from the NIH, has been taught continuously since 2002 and student enrollment has been at maximum capacity every semester.


Instructor Goals

The instructor's goals are to provide an overview of the anatomy and physiology of the central nervous system as it is related to sleep, to explore the psychological and neurological impact of sleep deprivation on individuals, and to engage students in authentic research as they conduct their own sleep experiment.


The course proceeds from the assumption that student leaning will be improved if one could teach a science class where students have first hand knowledge and experience with the subject you are presenting. Unfortunately, our students gain nearly all of their knowledge from a textbook, from being told of experiences, or in a controlled laboratory exercise on a college campus.


The Science of Sleep course is very different from other life science courses because STUDENTS HAVE FIRST HAND EXPERIENCE WITH THE SUBJECT MATTER. Sleep, as a science, is a ubiquitous topic. Everyone from small children to the elderly has experienced the blissful feeling upon awakening from a great night of sleep, as well as the agony associated with prolonged episode of insomnia. This kind of experience is rare in most topics of science where the learner of the subject has first hand knowledge and experience that they can bring to the scientific process.


This automatically qualifies the student as a participant in the discussion and alters the typical student-instructor relationship. The topics within this course can span an enormous range of science concepts and academic disciplines. A biological emphasis might focus on sleep phylogeny (how different animals sleep), circadian rhythms in nature, or sleep physiology. A psychological emphasis could focus on dreaming, primary insomnia, or excessive sleepiness. A neuroscience theme would focus on sleep/wake regulation, maturational changes related to sleep or sleep disorders.


Student Goals

The primary focus of Kapi'olani Community College's SCIENCE OF SLEEP (PHYL 160) course is SLEEP DEBT. Sleep debt is the cumulative effect of not getting enough sleep. In this course, the emphasis is not only on course content, but also on how students are able to demonstrate their acquired knowledge through direct experience. The student learning outcomes of this course include the following:

  • Identify and relate common topics and current issues in sleep science and human development.
  • Compare and contrast qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis techniques.
  • Use the hypothesis driven scientific methods to design research projects.
  • Present their findings in a scientific format.