vision and change: biology education for all students

That’s the title of the first chapter in the AAAS’s Vision and change report. It should cause tertiary biology educators to pause & think – because not all of the students sitting in our first-year classes are biology majors or, indeed, science majors. In my own Faculty around 1/6 of those students will be taking my papers out of interest or because they’re required for a degree program from another part of the University. So, while there is an obvious need to prepare the biology/science majors for further study in the subject, just what do we want those ‘others’ to take away from their semester of biology classes? As the report’s authors say, 

entry-level biology courses serve as the first and perhaps only chance to introduce [these non-science] students to scientific enquiry, the use of evidence, and the core biological concepts that will help them make informed decisions about the many biology-related problems they are bound to encounter in their daily lives. 

And further:

Biology [lecturers], therefore, have a unique opportunity and responsibility to ensure that all undergraduates taking their courses gain a basic understanding of science as a way to learn about the natural world. 

This is something that my own department discussed last week. The question we posed ourselves was, how do we ensure that this happens, within and across papers? Otherwise the risk is that we all assume that it’s happening, or that students are getting ‘it’ in some other paper, and that may result in turning out students who know a lot of science concepts and processes, but have somehow missed out on the knowledge of what science actually is, accompanied by some degree of scientific literacy in the broadest sense. And if we’re not careful that ‘other’ group – the students who aren’t enrolled in a science degree – are the most likely to miss out on that knowledge, while at the same time they’re the group who are perhaps most in need of gaining it during that semester or two of biology classes. (Or chemistry, or earth sciences, or physics…)

So what should we be doing with our students to ensure that they all (in the words of the AAAS report) "graduate with a well-defined level of functional biological literacy and critical-thinking skills"? (And, maybe, turning them on to science? After all, students who took part in the AAAS study commented that biology classes taken by non-majors can act as "a gateway to get more students interested in science.")

One part of the answer lies in deciding what ‘content’ is essential – finding a balance between the demands from other paper convenors to make sure students have the knowledge they view as prerequisite for their own papers, and the sort of depth of coverage that helps students gain conceptual understanding. This is something I’ve advocated for the secondary senior biology curriculum, where new ideas and appications tend to be front-loaded without anything ever falling off the back to make room, and it’s just as relevant at the university level. But do we have agreement on just what constitutes ‘core’ concepts and competencies in biology?

The AAAS authors conclude that there are in fact five core concepts – beginning with a knowledge of evolution:

  1. Evolution: the diversity of life evolved over time by processes of mutation, selection, and genetic change.

  2. Structure & function: basic units of structure define the function of all living things.

  3. Information flow, exchange, & storage: the growth & behaviour of organisms are activated through the expression of genetic information in context.

  4. Pathways and transformations of energy & matter: biological systems grow and change by processes based upon chemical transformation pathways and are governed by the laws of thermodynamics.

  5. Systems: living systems are interconnected and interacting.


Do you agree with this list? It would all sound rather familiar to anyone who’s had a good look at the Living World strand of the 2007 Science curriculum, & I think most uni-level educators would agree that they teach these concepts in some shape or form in many of their papers, although we do need to look at the level of integration there. But how, and to what depth?

Of equal importance is the need to develop a set of core competencies:

  1. Ability to apply the process of science: biology is evidence-based and grounded in the formal processes of observation, experimentation, and hypothesis testing.

  2. Ability to use quantitative reasoning: biology relies on applications of quantitative analysis and mathematical reasoning.

  3. Ability to use modelling and simulation: biology focuses on the study of complex systems.

  4. Ability to tap into the interdisciplinary nature of science: biology is an interdisciplinary science.

  5. Ability to communicate and collaborate with other disciplines: biology is a collaborative scientific discipline.

  6. Ability to understand the relationship between science and society: biology is conducted in a societal context.


Again, much of this sounds very like the 2007 Science curriculum, with its emphasis on the nature of science as the overarching, integrative strand that sits above the various science subjects, & in fact the paper also provides a matrix showing how these various competencies might be demonstrated, in the same way that the curriculum uses matrices relating to the nature of science. In the university system I suspect that we haven’t begun thinking about curriculum in the same way until quite recently, which means that in some ways we’ve a lot of ground to make up. But we’re getting there – talking about how to embed numeracy & literacy skills across all that we teach, for example; how to give students opportunities to practice & demonstrate those skills; and how to assess their learning. We’re all agreed that it’s highly desirable for students intending to major in biology to have a reasonably high level of maths background, preferably with statistics. But in practice that doesn’t seem to happen as often as we’d like, and then of course there are those students who aren’t science majors & may not have maths at all. The same’s true for the suite of skills relating to writing scientific essays or lab reports, & of course there are the all-important skills related to thinking critically about scientific issues. So all that has to be worked into our classes, with each cohort building those skills from year to year as they progress through their degree.

But it does come back to a statement made many times in Vision and change: less is very definitely more. Teaching fewer concepts, in more depth, allows students to build the conceptual frameworks within which to develop a thorough understanding of the subject, and opportunities to practice those various competencies, without totally overwhelming the non-scientists in the class So, while we’ve begun to look at how and where to embed opportunities to learn and practice the various competencies, we’ve still to begin that central discussion: what constitutes ‘core’ knowledge in terms of what must be learned at each step of a student’s tertiary studies.

I find it a rather exhilarating prospect.

 C.A.Brewer & D.Smith (eds) (2011) Vision and change in undergraduate biology education: a call to action. Final report of a national conference organised by the AAAS, July 15-17 2009, Washington DC. ISBN 978-0-87168-741-8

One thought on “vision and change: biology education for all students”

  • What to say? I could write a blog post in reply, there’s too much to say.
    (Need to convince the cat to move first. Somehow I need to come up with a compromise that works for both of us… Hmm. My first attempt didn’t quite work out…)
    In the meantime, bullet-point thoughts:
    – I’m a bit cautious about ‘information’ of late. It is a *representation* that makes systems more understandable for us humans, but the systems themselves are physical, messier and more complex in various ways. (I suspect my thinking works better for molecular systems, which are my ‘patch’.) It ought to be taught—it’s very useful—but with an explanation that it’s a *representation* or conceptualisation of a system. (As an aside, I wonder if this is one point where creationists “go wrong” – they take the notion of information literally rather than as a conceptualisation/representation – ?)
    – I could say far too much about the need for at least some basic maths & stats. Maybe I’ll just say that much for now!

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