The Schizoid Nature of Biology Education

How Can We Build a Leaner Meaner Curriculum? Vincent M. Cassone, PhD Texas A&M University

Public acceptance of evolution in 34 countries in 2005 shows the USA lagging significantly (Miller et al. Science 313: 765-766; 2006)

Index of Genetic Literacy
• Ordinary tomatoes do not have genes, whereas genetically modified tomatoes do (F) • Genetically modified animals are always larger than ordinary animals (F) • Cloning is a form of reproduction in which offspring result from the union of sperm and egg (F) • Today it is not possible to transfer genes from humans to animals (F) • If someone eats a genetically modified fruit, there is a risk that a person’s genes might be modified, too (F) • All plants and animals have DNA (T) • Today it is not possible to transfer genes from animals to plants (F) • Humans have somewhat less than half of the DNA in common with chimpanzees (F) • It is possible to extract stem cells from human embryos without destroying the embryos (F) • All humans share exactly the same DNA (F)

To what can we ascribe the poor performance?
• Miller et al. state that it is due to the fact that “Americans have a poor grasp of biological concepts” – Effect of fundamentalist Christianity greater in US than in other countries – Political conservatism • Bruce Chapman, President of Discovery Institute thinks otherwise – “A better explanation for the high percentage of doubters of Darwinism in America may be that this country’s citizens are famously independent and are not given to being rolled by an ideological elite in any field. In particular, the growing doubts about Darwinism undoubtedly reflect growing doubts among scientists about Darwinian Theory”

How have we arrived at this sorry state?
• The way we teach Biology • Historical Contexts • Disciplinary Boundaries
– Within Biology Departments – Between Biology and the Physical and Mathematical Sciences

• Mass Action • Laziness

We Really Don’t Know What We Want
• • • • Premedical/PreProfessional Education Research Scientists Competent Citizens These appear to be mutually exclusive needs.

• Founded in 1905 through merger of Depts of Botany and Zoology • Added Microbiology and Molecular Cell Biology later • A Department in Name Only

Department of Biology Texas A&M University

Mid-90’s Curriculum Review
• Very little retention of material from one level to the next • No evolution or ecology for MICR and MCB majors • No Molecular Cell Biology for BOTN and ZOOL majors • No sense of community

Accepted Recommendations
• Institution of two sophomore level classes
– BIOL 213 Molecular and Cell Biology – BIOL 214 Genes, Ecology and Evolution

• Standardization of mathematics
– Two semester Calculus and Statistics – One semester Calculus, one semester linear algebra, and Statistics

Unaccepted Recommendations
• Abolition of the different majors

• Reduction in the Introductory Offerings
– – – – – BOTN 101 BIOL 111 BIOL 112 BIOL 113 ZOOL 107

• Collaboration of Biology, Mathematics and Statistics
– VM Cassone (PI), TD McKnight, T. Wehrley, J. Walton, R. Honeycutt, and D. Bell-Pedersen (Co-PIs)


• Create a curriculum for mathematically inclined Biology majors and biologically inclined Mathematics majors • Provide a forum for current literature and reesearch discussion • Provide Research experience

Curriculum Changes for Biology Students
• Two Semester Calculus Course
– Calculus for Life Sciences by Claudia Neuheiser – Enables students to take upper division mathematics, chemistry and physics

• Discrete Mathematics • Differential Equations • Introduction to Mathematical Biology

Curricular Review 2006
• Voted to require the two semester calculus for all majors
– Unable to do this because of lack of Mathematics faculty and teaching assistants

• Added Undergraduate Genomics • Added Undergraduate Bioinformatics

Mass Action
• At large Research 1 Universities, faculty numbers are insufficient to adequately teach the large numbers of undergraduate students AND MAINTAIN RESEARCH PROGRAMS • 1800 Biology Department majors • 4-5000 students take Biology classes • 44 tenured/tenure-track faculty; 9 lecturers • 35 staff • 100 graduate students

Student Teacher Ratio
• Student: Teacher Ratio
– With 4400 students in instruction and 51 total faculty; 147:1 – With 1800 majors (2007) and 44 T/TT faculty; 33:1 – Leaving 3000 students for 9 Non-tenure-track faculty; 165:1 at 2 sections/faculty member

• “Inquiry-Based” Instruction
– Honors Tracks – Undergraduate Research

• Technology-Mediated Instruction • Sense of Community

Needs of Majors vs Non-majors
• Both need to understand to two basic questions in Biology
– What is the nature of biodiversity on Earth, and how dis it arise? – What is the nature of biocomplexity, and how is it regulated?

• Non-majors need to get the message in a semester or two • We can build the message to majors

• • • • Encyclopedic textbooks Audiovisual support Canned presentations Canned laboratories

What to Do?
• Departmental Revision of Content
– Dance Studio – What about Academic Freedom?

• Decide what laboratory instruction is for
– Supplemental Instruction – Research Process

• Engage Mathematics to provide mathematics for life sciences • Engage Chemistry and Physics similarly
– Do we need two semesters of Organic anymore? – What about Physics?


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