Universities urged to get with IT for biology

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Biology teachers in universities need to infuse their curricula with more computer science, mathematics and physical sciences, according to leading US scientists.

More cross-disciplinary teaching is needed to keep students up to date with the growing role of computers in biology and the impact of the molecular-genetics revolution, the academics say.

“The way we carry out science is profoundly different from 20 or 30 years ago,” says Lubert Stryer, a neurobiologist at Stanford University in California. “But education even at the very best schools has changed very little.” Stryer chaired a National Research Council panel that looked into undergraduate biology education and released its findings in a report on 10 September.

Mounting concerns that undergraduate education in the United States is failing to produce enough young biologists with the skills and motivation to go into research prompted the National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to commission the study.

Although current biology research relies more heavily on computer modelling, information technology and complex instrumentation, undergraduate courses and textbooks have stuck to the facts of life science and not much else, Stryer's panel claims. It also advocates more teaching on the history of science and the process of discovery.

Diane Shakes, who teaches cell biology at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, describes the panel's findings as a “noble goal” but sees significant hurdles for smaller teaching universities. She says that hiring interdisciplinary faculty to teach integrated courses would pose problems for small campus departments.

To implement the changes, the study advises using movies, computer presentations, and adding ready-made physics or chemistry modules to existing courses. Team-teaching across academic departments is also recommended.

Stryer hopes that government agencies and private companies will come forward with funds to support teaching workshops and develop educational materials to support the goals of the report.

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Powell, K. Universities urged to get with IT for biology. Nature 419, 102 (2002) doi:10.1038/419102b

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