A primary goal of this AAAS-NSF-HHMI sponsored conference on Transforming Undergraduate Biology Education (#TUBE09) appears to be to push the process further along. Penelope Firth of NSF talked about how previous conversations with various groups had produced a road map, and now what remains is the actual implementation or adoption on a sufficiently large scale (outside the Washington Beltway). Bruce Alberts and Jim Collins both pointed out that there had been studies and reports since the 1980s (about 25 years) urging reform of biology education, but progress to date has been scattered. Our charge today was to split into working groups to come up with concrete suggestions on various topics related to actually effecting change. The 8 working group topics are listed on the conference web site: www.visionandchange.org
My working group was on “Overarching and unifying key concepts and competencies”, split further into a subgroup on quantitative competencies (the two other subgroups are the intro course and the life science major writ large). An interesting way to subdivide this topic. I recognized the names of two of the people in my subgroup: Claudia Neuhauser, author of the Calculus for Biology and Medicine textbook, and Laurie Heyer, co-author of Discovering Genomics, Proteomics and Bioinformatics textbook. She is co-author also of an intro biology textbook currently in development, “Integrative Systems Biology”, promised with quantitative/math content (if it’s not cut out in response to the reviewers).
The quantitative competencies group quickly focused on data as the starting point for all 5 themes. We further subdivided into 5 subsubgroups, each dealing with one of the 5 themes: Evolution; Matter and Energy; Information; Structure and Function; Systems. I chose Matter and Energy, in part because bioenergetics is the module that students struggle with most in our Biol 1510 Intro Biological Principles course. The subsubgroups were charged with discussing how quantitative competencies would be integrated into each of these 5 themes, and subsequently to merge with parallel conversations on these 5 themes with the subgroups charged with intro biology and the life sciences major.
Our subsubgroup (quantitative competencies applied to matter and energy) quickly converged on identifying, collecting and analyzing data at different scales (global to molecular), including both descriptive statistics and hypothesis testing, analyzing or creating models, balancing flows (fluxes) of matter and of energy (keeping the two separate, although inter-related, to avoid the misconception that matter and energy are interconvertible). At different levels (intro vs upper level, majors vs non-majors), the analyses and models would be of appropriate complexity for the student audience and learning objectives, ranging from simple box models balancing carbon and energy budgets, to simple linear equations such as Fick’s Law, to more complex dynamic models. Matter and energy are inherently interdisciplinary, applying physical and chemical principles to biological processes, and having implications for climate change, with societal and political ramifications. Students would also learn to communicate, representing data and analysis graphically, or as simple flow charts, or even using manipulatives to convey quantitative ideas at a conceptual level.
More concretely, we discussed photosynthesis/respiration as an example of a biological process that applies at multiple scales, from molecular to global, approachable at different levels, from simple carbon and energy budgets and fluxes to molecular mechanisms and dynamic models with complex equations, with multidisciplinary impact. Within an intro bio course, or at deeper levels throughout the life science major, photosynth/respiration at different scales affects Earth history (origin of life, oxygenation and subsequent evolution of multicellular organisms), climate change, response of biosphere to climate change, global carbon cycles, energy transfers through trophic levels, biochemistry and cellular biology, structure/function, evolution of bioenergetic pathways, human genetic diseases and mitochondrial mutations.
The process of integration with the intro biology and life sciences major subsubgroups also charged with matter and energy, proved difficult at first because we had approached the theme in different ways. With the deadline fast approaching to produce a common poster summarizing our efforts, we coalesced on a simple diagram of mass and energy flows and budgets at different scales. We emphasized that the topic can be taught in various ways, with “hooks” appropriate to the instructor’s expertise and interest, such as deep-sea vent microbial communities, or the effects of exercise and diet, to capture student interest. In terms of competencies, we emphasized the importance of students analyzing data sets, or better yet designing and executing experiments and capturing their own data for analysis and presentation in graphical form or evaluating models and testing hypotheses.