College students who study biology are awash in a sea of complex data. But when it comes to the tools required to analyze and interpret that data, most undergraduates don't equip themselves early enough, says Purdue's HHMI program director Dennis Minchella. "Students will put off statistics courses until they're seniors," he says, despite the fact that quantitative skills can enrich even introductory science coursework. With that thought in mind, Purdue will draw on a new HHMI grant to integrate statistical reasoning and data evaluation into the biology curriculum.
A team of about a dozen scientists and educators will develop "plug and play" modules that instructors can integrate into existing biology courses to introduce statistical techniques. "It's not about reinventing the wheel," Minchella emphasizes. "But it is about reinventing how the wheel is measured, evaluated, and interpreted by students. We can put something together that faculty members can easily incorporate into their lectures." The work will deepen the school's existing strategies for integrating mathematics and life sciences, developed with an HHMI grant in 2002.
The new curriculum will show students that statistics and biology naturally intermingle. By the time they've reached upper-level courses, where more complex statistical models may be used, they'll have no trouble jumping in, says Minchella. Even if the students don't go on to conduct research, they will be able to use statistical evidence to analyze information that is relevant to them, such as news stories containing percentages and probabilities.
Of course, giving students the tools to understand statistical concepts is not the only goal. The deeper objective is to prepare them for careers that require facility with statistical and mathematical data. "[Those skills] are necessary in almost any biological position that a student will take," Minchella says. "We believe this approach is an effective way to train our future leaders in biology."