Natural History Education for Students Heading into the Century of Biology

By McGlynn, Terrence P. | The American Biology Teacher, February 2008 | Go to article overview

Natural History Education for Students Heading into the Century of Biology


McGlynn, Terrence P., The American Biology Teacher


Natural History & Evolution as Common Themes in Biology

A colleague teaching at a liberal arts college was recently dispirited by the following question from a senior biology major: "Is a spider a vertebrate or an invertebrate?" After examining our curriculum, we should be reluctant to lay blame on the student. This student learned the evolutionary processes that generated the spider, how to sequence its DNA, and measure its rate of respiration. Nowhere in the curriculum was she expected to learn what a spider is. Decades of emphatic promotion of experimental ecology, at the cost of natural history education, has robbed young biologists of exposure to organisms in their natural environment. E.O. Wilson (1985, 2000) has long argued that the unpopularity of natural history is leading to an educational and research crisis in our country.

In the new "Century of Biology," educators are charged with preparing biologists who can conceptually unify information from apparently disparate fields (e.g., Kafatos & Eisner, 2004). As no individual can receive professional training in every single aspect of biology, curricula should be developed to provide students with the basic content knowledge and problem-solving abilities to address new challenges as they arise (Honts, 2003). However, it is not necessarily clear which sets of knowledge and skills are best for preparing the next generation of biologists. The Bio 2010 report proffers many recommendations (National Research Council, 2002); at the root is the need to inspire undergraduate interest in biological sciences and provide the means to think across disciplinary boundaries. Some authors have argued that the conceptual unification of biology may be best accomplished by a consistent emphasis on natural history in biology education (e.g., Greene, 2005). Natural history education can effectively bridge gaps among disparate fields and is bound to elevate student interest.

Over the past two decades, organismal and field biologists have reported a decline in natural history in undergraduate education (Bartholomew, 1986; Trombulak, 1994; Noss, 1996; Krupa, 2000; Willson & Armesto, 2006). Some of the most effective appeals for emphasizing natural history in undergraduate coursework arrived as published plenary speeches by senior scholars receiving honors from scientific societies (Futuyma, 1998; Grant, 2000; Schmidly, 2005; but also see Arnold, 2003). The thesis of these pleas for natural history education is that we are training biologists strong in theory but weak in the ability to apply these theories to organisms and the natural world.

Fundamental to the training of biologists is a functional understanding of the causes and consequences of evolution. To most students, natural selection is an abstract concept. If educators do their job, students conceptually understand that the biotic and abiotic environment limits reproductive success of organisms. However, most graduating biology majors have little idea of the agents of selection that may operate on any given organism. A reading of The Beak of the Finch (Weiner, 1994) can get students closer to this goal, but this is more effectively achieved by spending time with organisms. Get your students to watch an animal trying to find food, build a nest, attract a mate, or avoid a predator. Examine microhabitats where organisms occur and find out why, in a common species, some plants have more flowers (or, in winter, withering infructescences) than others. Turn over rocks and find bugs. These are teachable moments for evolution that you can't get in a lab, and this is why natural history education is central to training biologists who can unify ideas in this new century.

While some contemporary scientists will disregard natural history as mere bookkeeping, a familiarity with organisms in their own environments is prerequisite for an integrative understanding of biology required for solving our most pressing research problems (Wilson, 1985, 2000).

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