Volume IV: What works, what matters, what lasts

Excerpts from the NRC Report Bio2010

"Biological concepts and models are becoming more quantitative, and biological research has become critically dependent on concepts and methods drawn from other scientific disciplines. The connections between the biological sciences and the physical sciences, mathematics, and computer science are rapidly becoming deeper and more extensive. The ways that scientists communicate, interact, and collaborate are undergoing equally rapid and dramatic transformations..."

Implementing the recommendations of this report will require a significant commitment of resources, both intellectual and financial. One important step is to consider the qualifications desired in a graduating biology major. For a school that is starting with a conventional modern biology curriculum, the committee envisions that multiple levels of transition would be necessary to fully incorporate physics, chemistry, mathematics, and engineering into the education of future biomedical researchers. Indeed a complete curriculum transformation would require alternations in departmental structures that may not be feasible in the short term. However, all institutions are capable of undertaking an initial stage of reform such as investigating how their teaching can better promote transfer of information among disciplines and the development and use of effective curricular modules in biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, computer science, and engineering courses.

Creation of new interdisciplinary majors is a significant challenge, often necessitating the hiring of new faculty with experience doing interdisciplinary research and teaching interdisciplinary optics. Thus, a second stage in reform might target the development of new interdisciplinary courses for the math and physics curricula proposed here, together with new interdisciplinary laboratory courses. Subsequent steps might include the design of new interdisciplinary majors, searching for new faculty fires with expertise in interdisciplinary topics and ways to teach effectively from interdisciplinary perspectives, or creation of consortia with other campuses to share faculty expertise, facilities and other resources.

The Evolving Role of Departments
The requirements for biology majors should be considered. Do students take courses in chemistry, physics, and mathematics departments? Do the biology faculty refer to the concepts taught in those courses in their own teaching? Do the chemistry, physics, and mathematics faculty use biological examples? Do laboratories emphasize the interdisciplinary nature of scientific research and actively make connections between disciplines? Are teaching assistants prepared to help students grasp such connections? What skills should students have when they complete their undergraduate program? Has the institution or department implemented a mechanism for measuring the success of students and faculty at reaching those goals? Designing a more interdisciplinary course of study requires answers to these questions, and the answers will often require reaching out to faculty and administrators outside the department. In addition, it is challenging yet important to balance the needs of students with different career goals. While interdisciplinary education in biology is crucial to preparing the next generation of biomedical researchers, it also presents an opportunity to demonstrate real-world examples that will intrigue biology students.

There are sound academic and administrative reasons for having disciplinary science departments. Disciplines attract students who then become practioners because the students find the question sin a particular area intriguing. Successful students find the disciplines that best match their interests and individual skills. Yet faculty who teach within a discipline often are not able to make the kind of connections they hope their students can grasp. This is a major barrier to the interdisciplinary education [we seek] to promote. Even very bright students often fail to transfer what they learn in one course to another, or to applications outside the classroom. Recent research on student learning has identified some of the key characteristics promoting learning and transfer: initial learning is essential; knowledge that is too contextualized can reduce transfer; abstraction can promote transfer; transfer is an an active dynamic process; existing knowledge can sometimes lead to deep misunderstanding of new information. Departments and faculty need to utilize this educational research [on how people learn] to guide curricular and pedagogical reform so that transfer between disciplines is promoted. This would promote immediate improvement in interdisciplinary education without need for abrupt reorganization of departments.

To develop an interdisciplinary approach to teaching, faculty must consider both content and pedagogy. For example, biology course content would be examined to find topics that require quantitative skills on the part of researchers. These could be examined to see how the quantitative materials could be incorporated into the course, and discussion with the mathematics or other departments could ensue to see how these are being taught. This would be followed by considering, in turn, other ways that chemistry, physics computer science, engineering, and mathematics can intersect with the topics in the course. Such changes may be difficult, but interdisciplinary teaching and interdisciplinary collaborations produce multiple benefits. Establishing partnerships will colleagues in other departments can lead to collaborations in research as well as teaching. Initial teaching of, for example, a module on the fluid dynamics of blood flow in a physiology course cold be done by a colleague in physics or math. For the biology faculty, incorporating such a module would be an opportunity to learn the underlying physical science and mathematics and potentially learn the skills necessary to subsequently teach the module independently. By starting with small modules and focusing on the transfer of disciplinary material, there would be minimal change in curriculum, the biology faculty could keep the course coherent, and the students would gradually become accustomed to the teaching approach.

Further interdisciplinary teaching can be attempted by the complete restructuring of a course or the revamping of the curriculum. Successful redesign of courses and curricula (as opposed to modules) requires a much larger investment of faculty time, departmental encouragement, and significant support from the college or university administration. Faculty must master new material, delete material from preexisting courses to accommodate the new material, and adapt their teaching style to the new approach. In almost all institutions, systemic change in the curriculum lies beyond the reach of individual faculty members. In addition, sustaining change requires the creation of an institutional culture in which faculty received appropriate support from their colleagues, department chairs, and those in control of the university budget.

Reform Initiatives & Administrative Support
College and universities cannot expect excellent teaching unless they actively support faculty development. Administrators need to recognize the time and effort required by encouraging faculty to take advantage of campus resources (such as teaching and learning centers and computer services) and supporting them for travel to conferences, workshops, and courses where they can learn and practice new teaching approaches and share their experiences with other faculty. As stated earlier, implanting the ideas of this report will take significant intellectual and financial resources.

For interdisciplinary education to become a reality, colleges and university must provide incentives and help eliminate disincentives to interdepartmental collaborations. The disincentives often come about when allocation of teaching credit and the condition and organization of the physical facilities are under departmental control. Decreasing barriers and increasing communication between departments will require mechanisms that facilitate faculty teaching out-of-department courses. These will often require increasing the recognition and rewards for faculty who teach outside of their department, possibly by allocating credit hours for teaching based on the department of the faculty member instead of the department listing the course. Interdisciplinary innovation also will require substantial faculty time and effort to develop new course materials, adapt existing curricula to their particular needs, and learn new topics. Departments and colleges must find new ways to make these resources available to help faculty and to recognize and reward their efforts. Again, departmental structures must evolve to meet these new needs.

A major constraint on increasing interdisciplinary education is the physical layout of the teaching facilities.

The science teaching spaces on most campuses today are typically located in building constructed in the immediate post-Sputnik era when the U.S. government was promoting science as a way to “catch up” with the Soviets. These old spaces reflect the strong influence of the inflexible, discipline-oriented laboratory spaces of that era and are ill suited for new pedagogical approaches and the presentation of interdisciplinary science necessary to train the life scienitsts of the future. Laboratories were often designed in ways that make student-student interactions challenging (i.e., floor-to-ceiling floor benches and shelves). Many institutions are now planning and building new science teaching and research facilities, or renovating old ones. Planning such teaching and research space provides a unique opportunity for any institutions to seek answers to the fundamental questions about how space can . be arranged to optimize educational objectives. An understanding of, and focus upon, the curriculum to be taught and the learning objectives to be realized must serve as the foundation upon which new or renovated spaces are designed. Integration of curricular mission and faculty, along with overall space needs, is essential before any institution can identify what kind of facilities are required for its programs. Teaching and research facilities must be designed and developed to work synergistically with new, interdisciplinary pedagogical approaches and to emulate the physical environments in which students will ultimately work.

Bio2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists. Board on Life Sciences, National Research Council. 2003