Saturday, January 20, 2007

What should biology students learn?

Our Biology Program has just been awarded a big 5-year grant (from the Carl Weiman Initiative) to improve how biology is taught. One issue that came up at our first meeting was "What should we be teaching our students?"

Students reading this may be horrified to realize that this is an open question. Surely professors decide what they should teach before they start to teach it! Well, we do try, but deciding what should be taught is a complicated problem and one we have no training for.

We university professors tend to teach a combination of what we learned as students and what we've learned since. This is bad for two reasons.

First, every time we learn something new and important we're tempted to add it to the curriculum, so the amount of information we're trying to teach keeps increasing. Most of us realize this, and keep trying to cut back on the information overload, but we never go as far as we probably should.

Second, the things we learned aren't necessarily the things our students should learn, because we were far from being typical students. Many of us were uber-geeks, and we were all the kind of students who go on to be university professors. But most of our students are nothing like we were. Their futures are likely to be much more diverse than ours, and many will have no direct connection to science at all.

There's another problem. We don't feel competent to teach many of the things we would like to teach, because we have no good ways to assess whether our students have learned them. We want to teach our students how to read critically, how to think creatively, how to write clearly. We want our students to really understand complex principles and processes, not just parrot back textbook explanations. But we don't know how to assess these abilities.

The Weiman Initiative grant will give us resources to develop the assessment tools we need. But that only addresses the second problem. First we need to decide what to teach. And these decisions need to be made in collaboration with our students.

We know what biology you need to learn if you're going to be a biology professor or a high school biology teacher, and some of the biology you'll need if you become a physician, dentist, or other medical professional. But many of you will go on to careers that have nothing to do with biology. So we'd like you to tell us how you might use your biology education when you're raising a family, or working in the family business, or selling real estate, or building furniture.

You can post comments to this blog entry, or if you're in my Biology 121 classes you can post them on the course's WebCT Discussion Board.

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