Feb. 5, 1998
Vol. 17, No. 9

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    New life for biological sciences

    State-of-the-art facility spurs innovation in College teaching

    By Jennifer Vanasco
    News Office

    In Room 232 of the Dorothy and Gaylord Donnelley Biological Sciences Learning Center, 20 juniors and seniors hunch over fluorescence microscopes and electrophoresis gels, talking avidly with their lab partners. The laboratory is clean and spacious, with a generous amount of bench space and a microscope for each pair of lab partners.

    It's a scene a visitor wouldn't have seen a few years ago, said Mary Crane, Senior Lecturer in the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division, and one of the designers of the new BSCD lab curriculum.

    Not only are the current laboratories less cramped than their predecessors, but they are "state of the art," Crane said. "Research laboratories are lucky if they get one fluorescence microscope. We have 10. This is better than the equipment most of these students will see in graduate school."

    The new equipment is only one component of a major overhaul of the curriculum of the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division, an effort spearheaded by Jose Quintans, Professor in Pathology and Master of the BSCD. Changes also include new courses and new experimental labs and ways of thinking about the science education of undergraduates.

    The improvements were inspired by the construction of the Biological Sciences Learning Center in 1994, which was recently named in honor of longtime University benefactors Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley. "This is a wonderful teaching facility," Quintans said, "which energized the faculty to update the curriculum to take advantage of all the building's possibilities." Quintans added that "the extent of the faculty commitment is proven by the numbers: nearly 100 percent of biology courses are taught by faculty." BSCD faculty consulted with colleagues around the country to determine the most effective methods for teaching the biological sciences and to devise the best curriculum for today's undergraduates. Their efforts have been supported by a Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant of $1.8 million. The grant will expire in 1998 but HHMI has invited the university to submit a competing renewal for $2.2 million.

    The results include changes at all levels: Common Core courses for non-science majors, Common Core for majors, and upper-level courses. In Common Core courses for non-majors -- nearly half of biology undergraduate courses offered each year -- the emphasis is on active-learning strategies and less on rote learning of facts and minutiae. "Cookbook approaches are out, active-learning is in," said Quintans. "The objective is to develop the students' appreciation for biology as an exciting way to learn about the world and about themselves."

    Future plans for non-concentrators also include "integrative biology," the interactive learning of biology and physical and mathematical sciences. The long-term objective is to standardize the non-major's experience in the biology core, Quintans added.

    For pre-med students and concentrators, the options have dramatically increased. Four sequences that Quintans jokingly called "fortified Common Core," are now offered for pre-meds and concentrators, up from just one sequence when Quintans became Master of the division in 1995. According to Quintans, "what made the expansion possible was the commitment of the BSD faculty and their Dean to the success of the undergraduate enterprise." BSD faculty participation has been enthusiastic, he said, including leadership roles played by the chairs of the basic sciences departments, three of whom teach in the sequences.

    The new sequences are so popular that they are growing continuously, with a projected 1997-98 total enrollment in excess of 1,100 students. The design of the sequences anticipated the student demand so that average class sizes have been cut in half (see graph on page 1).

    At the upper level, new courses have been introduced, such as Experimental Molecular Genetics, Cancer Biology and Darwinian Medicine. This spring, a new laboratory course in developmental biology will be taught and plans are underway to introduce courses in microbiology, neurobiology, cell signaling and psychoneuro-immunology.

    None of these new efforts would have been possible without the Donnelley Center, Quintans emphasized. Previously, undergraduate biology classes and labs had been taught in buildings scattered across campus. Quintans himself taught classes in Harper, Pick and Zoology, among other buildings on campus. But now all biology classes and labs are consolidated in one place, encouraging interaction between Biological Sciences faculty and undergraduates and providing a permanent space for teaching biology.

    "I'm not exaggerating when I say that the University has gone from having some of the worst undergraduate teaching laboratories to the having the best," Quintans said. "The Biological Sciences Collegiate Division has undergone a very dramatic change, and it all began with the Donnelly Center, with the ability to bring the biological sciences together under one roof."

    For more information about the BSCD's new programs, visit its website at www.bscd.uchicago.edu.