Magazine article Liberal Education

The Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Major and Liberal Education

Magazine article Liberal Education

The Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Major and Liberal Education

Article excerpt

THE DEFINING TASK for undergraduate departments is the design of a major, including the number and content of courses as well as other requirements. Department members must weigh the desire to produce graduates superbly prepared for further study against the charge that the major requires too large a share of an undergraduate's course options. This dilemma is particularly striking for the sciences at undergraduate institutions where faculty are committed to the breadth of the liberal arts but also pride themselves on the number of students going on to graduate school or employment in scientific fields.

Biochemistry and molecular biology (BMB) are often among the most demanding majors in terms of course requirements. In addition to the linear nature of all science programs, which hinders the flexibility of a major, BMB are interdisciplinary fields that integrate material from courses in different departments. Tension between contributing departments often leads to an increase in the number of required courses.

Since 1992, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) has supported a recommended curriculum for the bachelor's degree in BMB. In the years since it was developed, this curriculum has been modified to emphasize skills rather than coursework. In addition to defining core content in chemistry, biology, and allied fields, the society has published a list of skills to be achieved. Although expressed in language specific to the sciences, these skills mirror the learning outcomes recommended by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&.U) in its 2007 report, College Learning for the New Global Century (see p. 32). Mapping the two sets of skills onto one another indicates where the ASBMB guidelines are strongest and where they might be supplemented (see fig. 1).

Through a survey of department chairs and instructors, we sought to learn how widely the ASBMB-recommended curriculum and skills are understood by departments, at what levels the skills are introduced, what methods of pedagogy are employed, and how often openended research problems are presented to students. Broader-ranging questions about the role of BMB in liberal education were explored through interviews and open sessions at the 2007 ASBMB national meeting.

Survey findings

The survey revealed that 59 percent of schools grant only the Bachelor of Science (BS) degree in BMB, 20 percent grant only the Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree in BMB, and the remaining 21 percent grant both types of degree. The major goes by many names, but the vast majority are housed within chemistry (or chemistry and biochemistry) or biology departments. Approximately half the schools surveyed take account of ASBMB guidelines in designing their majors, and most of the others are aware of the guidelines but do not use them explicitly. Only 12 percent were unaware of the guidelines.

The biggest change that has occurred to the major since 1990 is an increase in the use of technology. Other notable changes include the introduction of more undergraduate research, more specific coursework, and more assessment of student learning. More than one-quarter of respondents reported no change to the structure of the major over this period of time.

Department chairs reported that the skills listed in the ASBMB guidelines are integral to their programs. However, many of the transferable skills - oral communication, scientific writing, reading primary literature - are taught only at the advanced level. Statistics instruction is more evenly divided between introductory and advanced courses, but at one-quarter of institutions statistics is not taught within the context of the major at all. The instructor survey provided a more detailed view of how skills are introduced and reinforced over the course of a student's program. Basic skills and knowledge are assumed by the time students reach the advanced level, while more sophisticated skills are first introduced at the upper level. …

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