Thursday, January 05, 2006

Biology class

Dr. Myers asks:

Could this be where the US is going wrong, treating biology as a subject that is drained of life by a stamp-collecting approach to reciting facts and details?


The answer is yes. When I told my high school colleagues that I planned to major in biology, almost all of them (and their parents) said something to the effect of: "Oh, I really liked biology, but it was always too much memorization."

While I'm prepared to argue about that (there's a lot of memorization in chemistry, too, and I find most of it fairly incomprehensible), let's take that statement as true.

People like biology. That's great. It's a first start. Even mediocre presentations can get the basic fun of studying living things across.

I think the problem is two-fold. First, biology is often presented bottom-up. The logic is, first we'll present the atom, then the molecule, then the macro-molecule, then the organelles, then the cell, then the tissue, the organ, the organ system, the organism, the ecosystem, and if time permits, how all of it evolved. There's a certain abstract coherence to that approach.

But it isn't how biology works. Maybe I say that because chemistry is all gobbledy-gook to me, anyway (I'm descended from a biochemist, so it isn't genetic). But what makes biology special is the organism. If I were recreating the American biology class from scratch, I'd start by refocussing on the organism, rather than a hierarchal treatment of levels.

The beauty of hierarchies is that they isolate levels. You can learn about behavior without worrying too much about how the muscles and neurons work, provided you understand that they do, in fact, work. To understand ecology, you have to understand that plants and animals need resources for their metabolism and to maintain homeostasis, but you don't really need to understand what happens to all that nitrogen inside the cells. And to understand how nucleic acids form (nitrogen is often a limiting factor in making new nucleic acids), you don't need to know much about ecology or behavior. It's handy, because you really don't have to treat it as a ladder, it's equally coherent as a series of spokes coming off a wheel.

So start with something fun, like behavior, or a survey of some of the broad diversity of life, rather than molecules which you can't readily imagine, doing things which are ubiquitous but unfamiliar.

Another thing that's wrong with biology classes, and really with science classes in general, is that there's too much emphasis on the data, and not enough on the ideas. Science isn't an encyclopedia, most people don't care to read the encyclopedia cover to cover, but that's how it's presented. Science is a process. It is a conversation, and it's a story of discovery and failure. Science classes should spend more time on that, not just the success stories (Darwin and Wallace, Watson and Crick), but the failures that lead to new ways of thinking (Erasmus Darwin and the pre-Darwinian evolutionists, Linus Pauling's efforts on the structure of DNA, the Gleasonian and Clementsian views on the ecosystem). These are often passionate arguments, but in the end, it's the data which settled them. That's the scientific method, but we rarely show it at work in science classes.

As an extension of this, were I redesigning science classes, I'd make them look more like humanities classes. Textbooks would be about an eighth their current length, and science classes (especially college science classes!) would be no larger than 30 people, ideally half that. Each class would cover some topic, and in addition to a brief introduction from the textbook, would involve a discussion of between 1 and 5 papers from the literature. Maybe a classic paper on a topic, maybe a classic and some recent papers, maybe a paper and the series of responses criticizing and defending it. Then the students would have to discuss the texts and the evidence presented, just like they have to in an English class.

In labs, rather than repeating an experiment they know the result of, make them use the material they've learned to concoct their own experiments, and then carry them out.

This is how many of the introductory biology labs are arranged at KU, and I have to say that the students love those labs where they aren't just running a prefab experiment, and they often realize that they don't understand something important while trying to devise a good experiment. It works.

As an undergrad at the U. of Chicago, the introductory sequence for biology majors was fairly traditional, lecture halls of 50-100 students, a sequence beginning with small things culminating with a quarter on diversity and a quarter on evolution at the end.

The intro. sequences for non-majors were very different. The professors got bored teaching the basic stuff to non-majors, and it was getting hard to get them to teach. So they redesigned the courses. Rather than the boring survey, each sequence was grouped around some idea. One roommate of mine took a sequence centered around neurobiology. Along the way, you have to learn some cell biology, some development, some organismal biology, some evolution, some biochemistry. But the professor is talking about work going on right now in her lab and others around the world, and the students see how the parts all fit together.

Here are some of the course titles available right now for non-majors. These are exciting topics which bring with them a whole lot of biology, but learned along the way, with a clear goal:


  • BIOS 10401. The Origin of Life. In this course, we discuss current thinking about the processes by which life emerged from just a few abiotic molecules and evolved into the present-day dazzling structural complexity characteristic of life. We begin by defining what is necessary and sufficient for life at its most basic level and discussing the fundamental chemical strategies that support life. With that understanding, we examine in some depth current theories and conjectures regarding chemical evolution and the emergence of the very first cell, the precursor to all life on the Earth.

  • 11114. The Growth of Science. This course attempts to show how the interdependence of observations and ideas leads to the development of scientific disciplines. Because the instructor is a biochemist, examples to some extent are selected from the development by men and by women of this field, whose vagaries provide opportune material for instructive generalizations that radiate into other biological and chemical areas. An attempt is made to determine reasons for the development and the lack of development of scientific disciplines at different times and in different places.

  • 11118. Introduction to Stem Cell Research. This course examines the scientific progress and future research directions in stem cell biology, reviewing the current state of the science of stem cell research. We address stem cells from adult, fetal tissue, and embryonic sources, as well as research ethics and diseases. The current progress in identifying and defining stem cells is introduced. The underlying molecular circuitries supporting that stem cell maintenance and differentiation during development are discussed. Our goal is to convey knowledge in this particular field and serve as a platform for discussion sessions that develop the ability to generate original paradigms and concepts from the pool of preexisting ideas.

  • 11123. The X-Chromosome and its Degenerate Counterpart, the Y. Simplistic explanations of the biological basis of human sexuality rely on the qualitative/quantitatively different chromosomal constitution of males and females. Current biological research indicates that the situation is much more complex. This course considers the molecular structure of X and Y chromosomes and the control mechanisms that govern their function. Social consequences considered range from the use of the Y chromosome for the study of human history to the supposed roles of genes in homosexuality and in behavioral characteristics.

  • 12108. Biology and the Human Condition. We discuss the insights that biology offers into some perennial human questions. Do the biological imperatives for reproduction and population growth inevitably conflict with the goals of a civilized society? Why do disease and suffering persist? In what ways are all people similar and in what ways is each individual unique? How do our genetic inheritances and our individual experiences interact in development? Is there a "human nature?"

  • 12113. Human Physiology for Everyday Life. Lecture topics cover all human body organ systems ranging from cardiovascular to reproductive in order to discuss the basic principles of human physiology. A special emphasis is placed on relating these physiologic principles to the common diseases one encounters in everyday life.

  • 13106. The Hungry Earth: Light, Energy, and Subsistence. This class considers the continuing erosion of the resources of the Earth by the persisting pressures of a growing human population, which makes a broad knowledge and appreciation of biology essential. Discussion includes the principles of energy conversion by plants as primary producers, the evolution of the structures and mechanisms involved in energy conversion, the origin of crop plants, improvements of plants by conventional breeding and genetic engineering, and the interactions of plants with pathogens and herbivores.

  • 13111. Natural History of North American Deserts. This lecture/laboratory course focuses on the ecological communities of the Southwest, primarily on the four subdivisions of the North American Desert, the Chihuahuan, Sonoran, Mohave, and Great Basin Deserts. Lecture topics include climate change and the impact on the flora and fauna of the region; adaptations to arid landscapes; evolutionary, ecological, and conservation issues in the arid Southwest, especially relating to isolated mountain ranges; human impacts on the biota, land, and water; and how geological and climatic forces shape deserts.

  • 13112. Natural History of North American Deserts: Field School. This lab course is a two-week field trip at end of Spring Quarter, specific dates to be announced. Our goal is to prepare proposals for field projects in the field portion of the course. Field projects are conducted at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona where we will compare patterns of plant and animal distribution along an elevation gradient in these two deserts. We then take a driving tour of the Mohave and Great Basin before returning to Chicago. Field conditions are rugged. Travel is by twelve-passenger van. Lodging during most of the course is tent camping on developed campsites.

  • 13118. Genetically Modified Organisms. In this course, we discuss issues surrounding the production of genetically modified organisms. We begin by understanding genetic manipulation and how it can enhance agriculture and medicine. We then focus on critically evaluating the scientific basis of health and environmental concerns. Readings from the primary literature are supplemented with background information on genetic technologies and with presentations from the media.

  • 14109. Physiology of Addiction. This course surveys the biological basis of substance abuse and substance addiction. We examine common addictions (e.g., caffeine, nicotine) to specialty drugs (e.g., ecstasy, anabolic steroids). Topics include: (1) an introduction to human metabolism and neurophysiology; (2) the mode of action of various substances on the nervous system; and (3) the storage, metabolism, and clearance of substances in the body.

  • 15111. Epithelium and Intestinal Flora. This lecture/discussion course introduces the symbiotic relationship between humans and their intestinal flora on a cellular and molecular level. Special emphasis is given to understanding the benefits derived from normal gut flora as well as the molecular mechanisms responsible for diarrhea, inflammatory bowel disease, and cancer. Students discuss recent original experimental work in related fields.

  • 15112. Biological Poisons and Toxins. This course explores biological poisons and toxins found throughout our environment. Toxins can originate from bacteria (anthrax, tetanus, botulinum, cholera), plants (ricin, curare, opiates), marine organisms (tetrodotoxin and saxitoxin), mushrooms (amanitin), frogs (batrachotoxin), and other organisms. Emphasis is placed on toxins that provide insight into the workings of the nervous, cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal systems. We also address current topics including the weaponization of toxins in biowarfare and bioterrorism and also explore examples of therapeutic (i.e., Botox) and commercial uses of toxins.

  • 15118. Why Microbes Know So Much Immunology. This course discusses the interactions between microbes and their human and animal hosts from an evolutionary perspective. Particular emphasis is devoted to the plague, AIDS, anthrax, tuberculosis, and other major forms of pestilence. The ever-changing complex interactions between infectious agents and of innate and adaptive immunity are presented.


This is all exciting stuff, at least to someone, and that's the point. It's what biology ought to be. And a high school teacher could probably take any one of those and design a 9th grade biology class around it, presenting everything he covers now, but all with the goal of explaining something about gender differences, or environmental science, or biological toxins.

The thing to note is that in teaching any of these classes, evolution is the clear organizing principle, because it links all the hierarchal levels together. If you just present the straight hierarchy, it's hard to decide where evolution fits, which leaves the public unsure where it fits.