Volume IV: What works, what matters, what lasts

Math and Bio 2010


In his essay in Math & Bio 2010, Julius Jackson of Michigan State University, poses challenges and proposes strategies for connecting scientists across the disciplines of mathematics, computer science, and biology. His insights concerning the challenges of encouraging, equipping, and rewarding faculty to become engaged beyond the narrow focus of their initial disciplinary interests are informative to departmental and institutional leaders wrestling with the nuts and bolts of establishing programs that connect and cross disciplines.

His suggested strategies include:

  • “Team teaching.  (In medical schools, teach-teaching strategies routinely work to reduce course teaching loads, and could be more extensively used to increase research time available for faculty teaching undergraduates.)
  • Revision of teaching load accounting.  (Count teaching load by course participation rather than contact hours.)
  • Research and teaching collaborations.  (Encourage intramural faculty collaborations among biologists, computer scientists, and mathematicians in both research and teaching.)
  • Weigh more heavily faculty teaching contributions to multidisciplinary courses.
  • Offer traditional service courses in larger class sizes.  (Perhaps teach pre-professional school biology as a service course different from biology majors.  This would give faculty the freedom to change courses for biology majors to reflect leading edge combinations of mathematics and physical sciences to create more quantitative bases for modern biology.)
  • Let graduate students [where they are available] or instructors teach service courses.
  • Make calculus a prerequisite for cor courses in the curriculum for a major in biological sciences.
  • Encourage experiments with new or non-standard strategies for teaching and learning.
  • Offer salary, travel and lodging support for faculty retraining.”
    – Page 59

Given the pervasive insistence in the national reports cited in PKAL’s Report on Reports on: I) interdisciplinarity as the face of the future of the world of science; and ii) the structural and cultural change that is needed in American higher education, Jackson’s further words stress the importance of institutional leadership.

“Constructive change requires effective leadership at the departmental and program levels, but also at the level of deans and higher.  The first challenge–often surprising difficult–is to gain strong support from an entire department.  Change is never easy in academia; ...marrying the cultures of biology and mathematics is especially difficult.  When faculty do agree, academic officers need to provide budgets sufficient to enable department chairs to implement constructive change.  Moreover, it is likely that some of these suggestions (see above) may run contrary to current tenure and promotion policy at many colleges and universities.  Successful change of curriculum and faculty preparation to implement new curricula will require not only greater investment of resources by deans and provosts but also greater cooperation between administration and faculty to support the new directions in biology education.”
– Page 59