Biology Departments Need to Increase the Integration of Physiology into Their Core Curriculum

By Hill, Brent; Moran, William M. | Journal of College Science Teaching, May-June 2012 | Go to article overview

Biology Departments Need to Increase the Integration of Physiology into Their Core Curriculum


Hill, Brent, Moran, William M., Journal of College Science Teaching


In 2003 the National Research Council (NRC) released a report, Bio2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists, to address the undergraduate educational needs for future research scientists (NRC, 2003). In summary, the report stresses that biology majors need to understand the central concepts of chemistry, physics, engineering/mathematics, and biology. Knowledge in these core classes is necessary because research scientists integrate all these principles to solve and interpret biological problems. This call to teach students to integrate the sciences was recently reaffirmed in 2010 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) report, Vision and Change: A Call to Action (AAAS, 2009). It is alarming that the one course (i.e., physiology) that teaches undergraduate students to integrate all the sciences together (mathematics, chemistry, physics, and biology) is virtually absent as a core requirement for biology majors across the nation (Silverthorn, 2003).

Physiology education has gradually declined in importance since the early 1980s when there was great interest and research support (via grant dollars) for cellular and molecular biology (Pinter & Pinter, 1993; Silverthorn, 2003). As discussed by Cheesman, French, Cheeseman, Swails, and Thomas (2007), in 1990, 39% of biology departments required physiology for graduation. In contrast, only 25% required it in 2005, and unfortunately, undergraduate students did not take it until their junior and/or senior year. Out of the 403 biology departments surveyed by Chessman et al. (2007) in 2004, no departments offered a physiology course in their freshman biology core curriculum. This is in agreement with Silverthorn (2003), who mentioned that none of the 104 institutions surveyed by the NRC Bio2010 report had physiology as a dedicated course in their biology core curriculum.

Using the recent U.S. News and World Report college rankings ("Best Colleges 2011," 2010), we surveyed the websites of biology departments from the top 20 institutions in the National Liberal Arts Colleges (NLAC) and National Universities (NU) categories. Out of the 20 institutions for both categories, we found only one NLAC biology department and three biology departments from the NU category that had physiology as a required core course for graduation. An additional four biology departments from NLAC and three biology departments from NU had a physiology course as a "choice" in their required core courses. In summary, this suggests that 73% of the institutions did not have a physiology course in their required core curriculum. In most undergraduate institutions (including ours), if students choose to take physiology they do so as an elective course in their junior or senior year. A common comment of these junior- and senior-level physiology students is "so that is why I had to take physics and chemistry." This comment reinforces why we feel that students need to take physiology early in their academic careers as a required/core class--so they can appreciate how biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics integrate to reveal organism function. …

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