Challenges in the Scientific Curriculum
By Teaster Baird Jr. on September 9th, 2009
Professors face a number of challenges in teaching science to undergraduate and graduate students. Some of them are relatively easy to fix, while others pose significant challenges. With research becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, should (and can) the undergraduate science curriculum evolve to reflect the emerging landscape? We spoke with Professor Teaster Baird, Jr. about the current state of education and the solutions that may rescue it.
What classes have you taught so far?
I’ve taught a variety of courses since I’ve been at San Francisco State. As far as lecture courses go, I’ve taught General Biochemistry, which is a survey course for non-majors, Biochemistry I and II which is the two semester sequence for biochemistry and cell and molecular biology majors, a graduate course I developed called Proteins and Enzymes and most recently General Chemistry I. I’ve also taught Biochemistry I Lab and a couple of seminar courses as well.
What have you found to be the most consistent challenge, year-to-year, with teaching students?
That’s a good question. Most of the classes I teach are undergraduate courses and every year the student population is different and each presents its own challenges. But I think the biggest challenge for me from year to year has been trying to balance content and pacing. The way our curriculum is structured, the courses build on one another so it is important to cover the material in Course A so the student will be prepared for Course B which will likely be taught by a different professor. So you can’t leave topics out because that topic or those topics might be something the next professor builds on. One year, I taught Biochem I one semester and the Biochem II the following semester so I could have a little more control of the continuity. Most students try to take the sequential courses in consecutive semesters, so I figured those who had Biochem I with me would take Biochem II the following semester. That group of students was already familiar with me and my teaching and exam styles and I could teach the second course knowing what they had in the first course and consequently I could test (and challenge) them appropriately.
What do you think is most challenging from the students’ perspective?
The course I’ve taught the most is Biochem I, so I’ll use that one as my point of reference. Biochem I is the first course that students encounter where they use concepts from all of the chemistry courses they have taken up to that point so students can feel a bit overwhelmed. In my first lecture, I try to prepare students for this by telling them that these divisions in chemistry we have are all artificial and that they’re going to see that in biochemistry. They use the quantitative skills they should have picked up in general chemistry and they use what they learned about organic reactions—pushing electrons, reactivity of chemical groups, SN1 and SN2, etc. On top of that, they have to learn the new ‘language’ of biochemistry. The amount of material they are expected to master is huge.
How do you address the concerns of both the faculty and students in these matters?
Trying to address these concerns is one of the reasons I wanted to teach General Chemistry. In our discussions about the curriculum, the faculty of the department collectively came to the conclusion that we don’t talk to each other enough about how we teach and what we teach our students. For example, When students enroll in my Biochemistry I course, I assume that they were taught the general chemistry topics that they needed, but I can’t say that I ever talked to the general chemistry instructors to see to what degree or how in depth they covered those. So I wanted to teach general chemistry to gain a better appreciation of whether my expectations and assumptions were realistic and accurate. I also wanted to get in the trenches and catch the students early to show them how the things they learn in Gen. Chem. were important because I, as a practicing biochemist, still use those concepts and skills in my work. So we’re trying to communicate with each other more so that our students have a more seamless and consistent learning experience.
Many undergraduates are required to take Biology, Chemistry and Biochemistry to fulfill degree requirements. How do you think the current educational system handles the integration of these disciplines?
Honestly, not very well. I think that part of the problem is that students, especially new students, take these courses thinking that they are separate and distinct and don’t relate to one another so they don’t try to make connections on their own. I think it is our job as educators to show students these connections early in their chemistry education so that they can begin to think in a more integrative fashion on their own as they take more advanced courses. Sometimes I’ll hear my colleagues complain about how students are just learning facts and can’t apply them or relate them to anything. My first thought is “did you teach them how to use the facts?” I think that’s part of my job. I know how science works. My students don’t. My job is to teach them what they do not know. Research has become increasingly interdisciplinary and the lines and divisions are blurred more than ever. To prepare students who will be entering the scientific workforce and ‘thinkforce’, we, as educators, need to start training students to think in a more integrative way.
Can you envision a more appropriate way to teach these subjects?
That’s the hard part, but I think finding an appropriate way to teach the core subjects to fully prepare the students would be a fun and exciting thing to do. If anyone who specializes in chemical/biochemical education has any ideas, I’d be happy to try them out!
As interdisciplinary research becomes more popular, is there room for college curriculum to evolve with research, or is change a major uphill battle?
Not only do I think there’s room, I think it’s absolutely necessary. Making the changes would be an uphill battle not because the value in curricular change isn’t acknowledged, but it is going to involve a huge investment of time and effort.
If you had it your way, how would an incoming Chemistry, Biology or Biochemistry student’s introductory requirements look?
Ideally, what I would really like to see is introductory courses that have specialty lab components where the integration of other disciplines with a given field could be demonstrated or specialty problems could be worked out. For example, every biology, chemistry and biochemistry major has to take physics, but the physics course is probably going to be taught from the physicists’ perspective and this may or may not seem important or relevant to the freshman biology major. What would be useful is if the lab component of the course was specialized where the principles and topics presented in physics could be used in a biologically based experiments for the biology major, in chemically based experiments for the chemistry major, etc. After all, the best way to learn science is by doing it. The physics instructor would give the large lecture to all the students taking the course and once a week, all the biology majors would go to the specialty lab section where the principles of the week are applied to their specific major. This way the lecturer could give the lecture as he or she has always done and the redesign would take place in the lab component. I can think of several obstacles that would likely be encountered in trying to implement such a plan, but it’s one I think would be very interesting and exciting.
Teaster Baird, Jr. is an associate professor, proud father, devoted husband and avid photographer. When not preparing lectures, Teaster can be found in the lab, advising the newest generation of scientists, or hiding in his office from undergraduates who just took his exams.