PAGE 4 OF 6
As a science education leader at Emory University, Patricia Marsteller encourages faculty members to cross departmental boundaries to make math come alive for students in the sciences.
For example, with HHMI support Joplin helped develop a three-semester introductory biology course at East Tennessee State that integrates calculus, statistics, modeling, and other mathematical skills into the traditional curriculum. He also initiated an HHMI-sponsored consortium of 30 academic institutions working to develop strategies and materials for teaching students quantitative methods. (That group will hold its second annual summer workshop at HHMI's headquarters in July.) “We're trying to generate the resources to teach this type of material,” says Joplin. “It's so brand-new.”
Those working to develop new approaches and teaching materials find themselves facing many other hurdles, including the legacy of mathematical concepts being taught without showing how they apply to biology. “The textbooks haven't changed,” Joplin observes. “There's lots of quantitative information, but no connection between the different subjects. It's not conceptual.” So he has been developing mathematics-teaching modules based on biological examples. “We want students to look at a data set and not see a blank wall. Instead, they should be able to describe the data and see something interesting in them.” However, just coming up with data sets to teach quantitative reasoning skills for biologists requires starting virtually from scratch.
Claudia Neuhauser, an HHMI professor and applied mathematician at the University of Minnesota, is a pioneer in teaching biology undergraduates the calculus and other math they will need (see Perspectives and Opinions, “Making Math Relevant”). “There's a problem with the way we teach,” she says. “Teaching is being done in silos”—within traditional departmental boundaries—“but now we're asking faculty and students to do work outside those silos, and it's a challenge.”
Patricia Marsteller calls herself Emory's “director of subversive studies” because of her work to build bridges between traditionally distinct departments, courses, and laboratories. That's one of her charges as director of the university's Center for Science Education.
To push faculty members to rethink how and what they teach and get them to reach beyond their traditional disciplinary boundaries takes provocation and rewards, according to Marsteller. “It's difficult,” she says, “because it requires collaboration and cooperation between departments that don't work in the same way and don't think in the same way about education. Faculty are torn by their disciplinary loyalties, and of course it's always hard to teach old dogs new tricks.”
When Bio2010 appeared, she saw it as an opportunity to spark interdisciplinary conversations, if not out-and-out insurrection. She sent copies to every faculty member of Emory's biology department and to many in the chemistry, physics, and mathematics and computer science departments. Soon discussions began and an interdepartmental working group on science education started meeting regularly.
Other efforts were already under way to bolster math preparation at the undergraduate level, including a two-semester calculus course, now a requirement for all biology majors. Mathematics professor Dwight Duffus, who created the course a decade ago, covers differential equations, probability and statistics, and modeling by using a range of biological topics—such as predator-prey systems, movement of species across regions, the spread of disease, and the firing of muscle neurons—to make the math immediately relevant.
Duffus is still learning how to teach math for biology students. “The problem that I have, as a mathematician,” he says, “is understanding the math and computing skills and knowledge biologists need in their majors. Should they be able to construct a mathematical model on their own or just be familiar with the main concepts? You have to be aware of the diverse math backgrounds and aptitudes of students.”
Vaidy Sunderam, who chairs the department of mathematics and computer science at Emory, believes that more interdepartmental dialogue is needed. “There's still this gap,” he says. “Mathematicians talk of matrices and equations, and biologists talk about structure and function.”
Photo: Gregory Miller