A Provably Necessary Symbiosis

Article excerpt


Imagine walking into a high school classroom. Students are sitting in groups with their heads together, busily typing numbers into their graphing calculators. Short bursts of discussion occur, a few matrices (refer to Table 1 for a glossary of terms) are sketched, and more data are entered into the calculator. A casual passerby would likely assume that this is a math class, but as the teacher brings the students back into a discussion about the evolution of proteins, it becomes clear that this is a biology class. Perhaps it is not a typical biology class. But modules developed by the BioMath Connection project at DIMACS, the Center for Discrete Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Science at Rutgers University, and sponsored by the National Science Foundation, are helping to make such scenes more common in biology classrooms.

But wait--there's more! In a different part of the building, a math class is double checking the optimal local alignments they generated for two distantly related protein sequences, including a discussion of mutations and evolution. Here, the biological framework provides important context for the dynamic programming that forms the mathematical portion of the lesson. This module uses spider silk as a way to introduce proteins and evolution and then develops the alignment algorithms step by step, implementing them first by hand and then using Biology Student Workbench. This last step grabs the math students' attention. Students recognize that this free Internet resource puts at their fingertips all the databases and algorithms that scientists at the very frontiers of biology research are using. Their subsequent involvement is convincing evidence that this topic is indeed appropriate for a calculus class.

Classrooms such as these are the vision of National Science Foundation grant NSF-0628091. The primary investigator, Fred Roberts, is acutely aware of the need to integrate biology and math at the high school level. As he has written,

Modern biology has changed dramatically in the past two decades. Driven by large scientific endeavors such as the human genome project, it has become very much an information science, closely tied to tools and methods of the mathematical sciences. New algorithms and mathematical models played a cen tral role in sequencing the human genome and continue to play a crucial role as biology develops models of information processing in biological organisms. Increasingly, undergraduate and graduate students are being exposed to this interplay between the mathematical and biological sciences. In the high schools, the biology curriculum has made some advances by including such things as genetics and the human genome project, and even some of the mathematics in the Mendelian genetics model. There are also a few isolated efforts to bring biological examples into the mathematics classroom. But for the most part, high schools have done little to develop connections between the biological and the mathematical sciences. Current efforts need to be supported and new efforts developed to bring high school education up to speed in the integration of mathematics and biology. Students need to be exposed to the excitement of modern biology from both the biological and mathematical points of view. They need to be informed of the new educational and career opportunities that are arising from the interconnections between these disciplines. Introducing high school students to the interconnections between the biological and mathematical sciences will enhance both the study of biology and the study of mathematics. Students interested in studying biology will realize the importance of understanding modern mathematics. New horizons will be opened for those who find mathematics interesting, but wonder how it might be useful. There is the potential for all students (not just high-achieving students) to study mathematics both longer and more seriously because they are aware early of its importance in applications such as protecting us from bioterrorism, responding to public health crises, and understanding modern diseases. …