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East Tennessee State University's Karl Joplin pulled together 30 academic institutions to revamp how biology majors are taught quantitative reasoning skills.
His colleague Dieter Jaeger notes that resistance among students is also a factor. “You have to convince them,” he says, “that it's more than just making biology harder.”
In fact, even though some students might never need to derive an equation in their biomedical careers, studying math contributes significantly to those careers. A recent study of 8,500 students at 77 U.S. colleges and universities showed that the stronger a student's high school preparation in math, the better he or she is likely to do not only in chemistry and physics but also in biology. Writing in Science last July, the study's authors—Philip M. Sadler, director of science education at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and Robert H. Tai, a professor of science education at the University of Virginia—described “more advanced study of mathematics in high school” as one of the “pillars supporting college science.”
Perhaps the most important factor driving the increased emphasis on quantitative skills is the changing nature of biology. From discoveries about neural networks, genetics, and cardiac blood flow to understanding disease pathways within cells and throughout entire populations, many of the most important advances in the field now rely on mathematical modeling, quantitative analysis, and bioinformatics (see sidebar on page 5, “Zeroing in on Cancer Genes”).
“I wasn't good at math in high school,” admits biology professor Karl Joplin, and that influenced his choice of career. “I thought biology was a field with no math. But boy, was I wrong.” Accepting that the rules have changed, he now leads efforts at East Tennessee State University, in Johnson City, and a consortium of other universities to promote more quantitative education in biology.
Fernán Jaramillo, a neuroscientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, agrees that “the nature of the problems we study has changed in the past 20 to 25 years. Quantitative issues are much more central, and that is an accelerating trend. Students have to realize they won't do well without some quantitative competencies.” Jaramillo directs the Interdisciplinary Science and Math Initiative, an HHMI-funded multidepartmental effort to bring more quantitative and interdisciplinary approaches to science courses at his school.
Recent surveys have shown that American college students tend to perform poorly in tests of quantitative skills compared with students in other countries. “The rest of the world is catching up, and by some measures has already overtaken us,” according to a 2006 report from a federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education. The problems persist among some with advanced degrees as well. A study published September 5, 2007, in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 75 percent of U.S. physicians-in-training surveyed did not understand the statistics they encountered in medical literature, thereby calling into question their ability to interpret important clinical research data.
Advocates for science education reform at several national organizations, including HHMI, have been urging educational institutions to rethink how they prepare their students in the biomedical sciences. A National Research Council (NRC) committee commissioned by HHMI and the National Institutes of Health to investigate education in the biological sciences issued an influential 2003 report, called Bio2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists. It outlines a strategy to improve the quantitative skills and math, chemistry, and physics comprehension of students preparing for biomedical careers. The report encourages faculty to implement teaching strategies that promote the skills required for problem solving in an increasingly interdisciplinary world.
“Biologists of the future are going to need additional skills, more quantitative reasoning being chief among them,” says Adam P. Fagen, a program officer at the NRC's Board on Life Sciences. “Bioinformatics, for one, didn't even exist until a few years ago. Now it's a field in itself and essential to more and more people across the life sciences.”
“All of us are driven by Bio2010,” says Joplin. But even before the appearance of the report, HHMI—in conjunction with other supporters of science education reform—invested heavily in helping schools design and implement innovative strategies to bring more math into biology classrooms at all levels.
Photo: Fresh Air Photo