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Preparing Biologists for the 21st Century

AIBS Eye on Education

M. Patricia Morse

Biology research is on a roll: In the last 50 years, we have discovered the basic links among all living things through our growing understanding of the structure of DNA, and scientists have gone on to map the genomes of humans and other organisms. This work has opened wide doors for new generations of researchers to ask questions across all of biology, from cell function to ecological interactions. Applications of this knowledge, especially in fields concerned with health and the environment, have caught the imagination of a broad audience. Burgeoning databases, microscopic images of the human brain, high-speed videotapes of organisms' movements, and catalogs of the biodiversity of the world's organisms are all available to students and researchers alike—to anyone with access to a computer—through the communication technology of the Internet.

Meanwhile, in education research, evidence has been accumulating about effective ways to teach biology for deep understanding and lifelong learning. We know that students enter our classrooms with misconceptions about the nature of science and other ideas central to the study of biology (see How People Learn, a report of the National Research Council [NRC]). We have evidence that learning is deeper when students learn biology by acting as scientists, asking questions, suggesting experiments to answer those questions, gathering data from those experiments, and communicating their results to their peers. Almost everyone agrees that the most effective teaching strategy is not presenting soon-to-be-outdated facts but showing students how the process of scientific discovery works.

But bringing together the most recent advances in biology and education research is an immense challenge. We have to ask—and answer—difficult questions if our nation's academic institutions and their biology faculties are to connect with today's undergraduate students. For example: What opportunities and experience will best prepare all undergraduates to take their places as professionals in biology and to become teachers of the next generations of students in our K-12 schools? How do we make students—all students, whether biology majors or not—biologically literate, to ensure that they understand the fundamentals of biology necessary for making informed decisions in tomorrow's society?

"Major changes in research compel major changes in undergraduate education," begins a recent NRC report, BIO2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists. Sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the study was conducted as a series of panel meetings and workshops organized by NRC's Committee on Undergraduate Biology Education. BIO2010, the compilation of the panel and workshop reports, will resonate with creative biology department faculty members who are looking for effective ways to integrate research and education.

BIO2010 answers the call from the biology faculty community for systemic change in science departments to meet the needs of biology students and adequately prepare them for research and other professional pursuits in biology. The experts who participated in the panels and workshops came from a variety of colleges and universities and crossed discipline boundaries in their research and teaching to make comprehensive recommendations for undergraduate biology education.

Rich in case studies and references to innovative programs and based on sound educational foundations, BIO2010 calls for stronger interdisciplinary education by integrating into the biology curriculum specific concepts from chemistry, physics, and especially mathematics. The report lists the concepts and skills needed by contemporary research biologists and outlines the pedagogical approaches for achieving them. Apparent throughout BIO2010 is the passion for doing biological research that the committee members shared and wanted to impart to students—the excitement of being involved in research projects and empowered with knowledge and skills that will open doors for students in this century. The report is an excellent blueprint for college and university administration and faculty members to use in building a contemporary biology program. Indeed, it should be on the shelf of all biologists who interact with undergraduate students in their classrooms or laboratories.

With new insights into how we can effectively teach biology, we can provide new visions and resources for college and university faculty and administrators, so that biology can claim its rightful front and center seat for 21st century undergraduates. Professional biology societies and groups, such as those that make up the AIBS family, are important bridges that connect biology faculty members with these visions of contemporary biology and education in the classroom.


CM. Patricia Morse (e-mail: ), a zoology professor (acting) at the University of Washington in Seattle, is the 2003 recipient of the AIBS Education Award.

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