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The divide, deeper than mere semantics, can touch on basic cultural differences, he says. "Even among top-level scientists, our fundamental ways of conducting inquiry differ, depending on our interests and training."
Teaching introductory biology, Walker experiences the disciplinary disconnect firsthand. "It's a constant challenge," he says, "to find ways to make biology comprehensible and relevant to students who think like engineers."
As an HHMI professor—1 of 20 research scientists nationwide who received $1 million each from HHMI to find innovative ways to stimulate undergraduates' interest in science—Walker is ever on the lookout for solutions to this problem. Last spring he invited Mary E. Lidstrom, a fellow HHMI professor, to MIT to discuss how she grapples with it at the University of Washington.
Lidstrom, who teaches a biology class for engineers, has found that biologists are motivated by the "what" while engineers are motivated by the "how." She told a packed room at MIT that "engineering students tend to view biology as magic because they don't see us using differential equations. And often they don't even necessarily want to understand the 'what' of biology—they just want to use it."
"So we actually teach biology to engineers using a function-based approach, with the idea of nature as the designer and evolution as the design tool," Lidstrom says. "That's real engineering. And that's the way we feel biology should be taught—start with how it works, then talk about the parts."
To help her engineering students feel comfortable in this strange new territory, she says, "We talk about the functions of life, about information transfer, about adaptability. Engineers understand systems, and ecology is the perfect example of a system."
But while Lidstrom's approach may be useful for engineering students, says Julia Khodor, a graduate student who helps teach Walker's introductory biology course at MIT, it may be limited to engineering students. "Because our lectures need to reach all students, regardless of background," she says, "they are likely to remain mostly in the language of biology."
Lidstrom suggests an option—in effect, double majors. "The new research workforce will always need people firmly based in the core disciplines of biology and engineering," she says, "but it also needs translators who have the understanding and the tools to communicate about the other field."
Douglas A. Lauffenburger, a biological engineer who helped develop MIT's new major in that field, agrees. "The world of science keeps expanding," he says. "For a synthesis to be effective, we have to educate a third kind of person—a 'bilingual' one."