Dissecting the Biology Curriculum

November 16, 2007

Introduction to Biology is typically among the largest classes at Cornell University, as it is at many colleges. Biological science majors take it. Students in other sciences register. Even English and history majors have a version of the course that's tailored to them. Add it all up, and 1,000 students could be enrolled in such courses at any given time.

Overflowing lecture halls aren't optimal for instruction, says Ron Harris-Warrick, a professor of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell. He's leading a task force that's charged with proposing structural and pedagogical changes to the undergraduate biology curriculum. That group, representing faculty from within and outside of biology, has issued its preliminary report, which addresses the size issue and makes a number of recommendations that would significantly alter the program.

Supporters say the proposal more effectively disperses the large number of students into smaller, more specialized classes and responds to changes in the field. Yet others see the moves as unnecessary and failing to address the root problems.

One piece of the proposal would alter the requirements for biological science majors. Instead of taking the standard two-semester introductory course, students would choose two specialized courses from among three options: physiology; cell and developmental biology; and ecology and sustainability.

Under the latest version of the proposal, biological science majors would be required to take modified versions of current courses in evolution, genetics/genomics, and biochemistry/molecular biology sometime before graduation. Harris-Warrick said there has been some talk of allowing students to choose five of the six courses, and not make any a requirement.

The committee says it is "no longer possible to cover all of biology in just one course," and that the new "versions" allow students to get more in-depth while still covering much of the material that's in the current introductory course. It would also allow instructors to teach smaller courses, and the hope is for the courses to each have discussion sections with 15 students or less, Harris-Warrick said.

Students in the applied biological departments are interested in different aspects of the field than those who are biological science majors, he said, and the new arrangement would offer more variety and allow for specialization early on.

The proposal also calls for the creation of a one-year laboratory class that's required of all majors and would be available to other science students. The course would emphasize techniques in biological research, involve fewer experiments than a typical lab course, but offer more time for analysis, Harris-Warrick said.

Non-biological science majors who are required to take courses in the field could still enroll in a reformatted intro biology course, though they could also choose from among the six newly designed courses.

"We want instructors teaching [the intro] course to come up with core concepts they want students to learn," Harris-Warrick said. "All the time we hear that this course tries to cover too much in too little time. We might sacrifice breadth for depth."

Non-science majors would no longer take the current introductory course designed for them, but have available a new group of courses with themes such as bioterrorism and global epidemics.

Peter Bruns, vice president for grants and special programs at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a former genetics professor at Cornell, said he applauds the effort to get students doing hands-on lab experiments earlier in their educations. It's often not until they are upperclassmen that they get that chance, he said.

(The institute, which awards money to support science education at colleges and other entities, has given Cornell a grant to help implement some curriculum changes.)

Bruns said offering the new courses for majors in lieu of the survey course could remove some confusion for instructors.

"Everyone who teaches the later courses always asked, 'How much are we restating what students have already learned and boring people?' " he said. "The report is recognizing that, and saying if we parse out the core parts of biology, these are the subjects that make the most sense."

But Bruns said one concern is that students would take the five courses in a sequence that wouldn't make sense -- for instance some could take courses that require biochemistry knowledge without having actually taken the biochemistry course as a foundation first. The other danger, he said, would be students seeing the courses as silos. "That would be a shame," he said. "People teaching the courses would need to talk and find common threads."

Both faculty and students had a chance to share their thoughts on the proposal this week. Harris-Warrick said he heard lots of support, but also strong criticism. One of the main themes from the critics: Faculty who teach the introductory course are concerned about there not being a unique freshman experience.

"It's certainly not our intention to isolate students, " Harris-Warrick said. "Our set of core courses are tailored to freshmen, because they include discussion and a built-in support network."

Jerry Feigenson, a professor in molecular biology and genetics at Cornell who did not attend the faculty forum, said his concern is that the committee is fixing the whole curriculum instead of targeting "what's broken." He agrees class sizes are too large, but he said the best way to attack that would be to allow students to place out of the class with high school advanced placement credits -- something that he says is difficult already and the report would make impossible. (Students would not be able to use AP biology credits toward any requirements in the biological sciences major, though they could count toward credits needed to graduate.)

The proposal, he said, could also lead to a "dumbing down" of certain courses. For instance, Feigenson teaches a junior- and senior-level biochemistry lecture course that is required of majors. He said the course could remain as is and not be a requirement, or he would have to leave out sections of the curriculum to make it fit with the design of new courses.

The committee, which was assembled earlier this year at the request of Cornell administrators, will consider faculty and student responses and make further recommendations if needed. The program would go into effect in fall 2009 at the earliest.

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