Saturday, April 28, 2007

Expanding Science

Here's an article about the recent advances in biology and how Berkeley is responding:

While the Human Genome Project required some 13 years and $2.7 billion taxpayer dollars, Rine predicts that within ten years, the average American will be able to have his or her personal genome sequenced for less than $1,000.


Ironically, the very advances that have opened these new vistas into the life sciences have left a key component of Berkeley's undergraduate biology program lagging behind. More than 1,200 undergraduates per year take the Introductory Biology course, also known as Bio1A. This instructional behemoth includes a laboratory component that runs more like an aircraft carrier with great momentum but one that has difficulty changing course.

This state of affairs won't last for long. Last April, Rine was awarded $1 million by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute expressly to revamp Bio1A's labs.

I'm perplexed as to why an introductory biology lab needs to change because of advancements made in genomics. Regardless of what genes control what biological pathways, Bio1A will still need to focus on the fundamentals of biology lab work to prepare students for possible future research careers. Those fundamentals can be taught with or without an extra $1 million, as they have been taught in the past. Since the money is not needed to necessarily teach the subject matter, it only serves to develop lab assignments into more interesting lessons, albeit the lessons will be the same.

Will this instill interest in research and encourage more students to pursue research? Probably, to some extent. But is it the most worthwhile of expenditures the biology department can muster? With about 1,200 students taking the course each year, $1 million could be better spent on reinforcing the quality of education for all students, by offering subsidized note-taking services, employing more tutors, and adding more review sessions. It could also be used to set up new undergraduate research programs that recruit students in the class and place them into various labs on campus. We have something like this already, but it's not specialized for biology and it's just too competitive (hundreds of applicants for only a handful of positions).

These ideas wouldn't cost much but might have a greater impact: students will feel more supported in their studies and will also have higher access to new opportunities. New labs are nice, but we have bigger issues to deal with.

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