November 15, 2007

Task Force Outlines New Program for C.U. Bio Majors

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The Task Force on the Undergraduate Biology Curriculum held an open forum yesterday to discuss proposed changes to the undergraduate biology program. If approved, the changes would completely overhaul the current system.
The changes will not affect current students, but rather incoming freshmen in the fall of 2009 at the earliest.
Task Force Chair Prof. Ronald Harris-Warrick, neurology and behavior, stressed that the report was a “working report” and encouraged students to give feedback, ask questions and make suggestions.
The report seeks to improve the undergraduate biology program by addressing what Harris-Warrick identified as the three “major” problems — how to incorporate in-depth, continuing developments in the field, the size of the introductory classes and the fact that introductory biology is only offered at two levels. In short, it attempts to improve the curriculum by focusing “on depth, not breadth.”
Although introductory courses for both majors and non-majors exist, there are actually three groups of students who are required to take some form of an introductory biology course — majors, who need an in-depth course, other scientists such as mathematicians and pre-meds, and non-scientists looking to fulfill a breadth requirement.
With the new biology program, majors will take a set of five introductory core biology courses instead of the one-year introductory course, and three additional courses. By spreading the course over five semesters, the Task Force hopes to cover the full spectrum of undergraduate biology in a more in-depth fashion. So, although the number of courses will not change, the program will be vastly different.
Students in the major will also be required to take a one-year lab course, which will focus more on the teaching the scientific method and generating hypotheses than current lab course required.
According to Harris-Warrick, the core series is “still up in the air.” However, he said, the three required courses will concentrate on evolution and diversity, genetics and genomics, and biochemistry and molecular biology.
In addition, students will be able to choose two out of three courses from physiology, cell and developmental biology, and ecology and sustainability. In order to make courses more active and smaller, all courses will have a discussion section as well.
“The core concepts are the same, just with different flavors,” he explained.
A one-year introductory biology course will still be offered for the non-biology science majors, and, like the current introductory biology course, will have an auto-tutorial option. However, unlike the current intro course, the material will be more limited and focus on the core concepts in greater depth. This course would fulfill pre-meds’ biology requirement.
A new set of biology courses will also be offered for non-scientists, abolishing the biology for non-majors course currently offered. These courses will focus on scientific investigation and more socially relevant issues, such as global warming or global epidemics, which may interest students in other CALS programs, such as Applied Economics and Management.
One issue that students felt strongly about was how credits would transfer for incoming high school students with AP credits or transfers who have taken an introductory biology course.
Under the Preliminary Report, students will not be able to apply AP credit to the major, although it can still count toward the 120 credits necessary to graduate. Transfers who have taken introductory biology will be able to use that credit, but only for one of the five required courses under the new program.
However, Harris-Warrick said he did not think that enrollment in the major would decrease as a result, and noted that two-thirds of students with AP Biology credit take the introductory course anyway.
“It’s important to realize that people do not want to be partially penalized,” said Alex Chin ’10. “I don’t understand what’s wrong with the current model. I admit there are improvements to be made, but I think this is the wrong way to do it.”
Several students also questioned whether it would be better to just add more teachers and make courses smaller instead of making such drastic changes.
“Adding more teachers would only address some of the problems,” Harris-Warrick said. He noted that student recall of information from the intro-level course was weak and that, as a result, the sophomore-level courses start from scratch.
He said that students raised a lot of good points that reflected fears addressed in the report, and that he would take the concerns raised back to the task force to discuss. Overall, the feedback from students was overwhelmingly positive.
“The benefit students will get after you will be much appreciated,” he said.
The task force was set up a year ago by Deans Susan Henry and Peter Lepage, of CALS and the College of Arts and Sciences, respectively, to assess the current undergraduate biology curriculum and the overall undergraduate biology program.
Bringing together faculty from several departments, both inside and outside of biology, its goal to try to come up with ways to make Cornell’s program the best undergraduate biology program in the country, said Harris-Warrick.
The full Preliminary Report of the Undergraduate Biology Curriculum Task Force is available at