posted September 10, 2002

Prof Part of National Effort to Shape Bio Teaching

From among all the liberal arts colleges in the country, it was Hope College alone that made a direct contribution to a report of the National Academy of Sciences designed to improve biology instruction across the country in the coming years.

The report, "Bio2010: Undergraduate Education to Prepare Biomedical Research Scientists," was released during a public briefing in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Sept. 10. Dr. James Gentile, who is dean for the natural sciences and the Kenneth G. Herrick Professor of Biology at Hope, was the only representative of a liberal arts college on the hand- picked, 11-member team that wrote the report.

The report advocates integrating other disciplines into the education of biology students, and using teaching methods that build students' interest in science, such as involvement in research--approaches already emphasized at Hope. It's a major change, Gentile noted, from the stand- alone departmental model followed nationwide the past several decades, but also an essential one.

"What the report says is that the future demands training quite a bit differently than the training we gave over the last 50 years," he said. "If we look at recent trends and then start projecting over the next one or two decades, the needs are quite different."

Increasingly, Gentile noted, researchers are drawing upon the methods and knowledge of multiple disciplines in their investigations. Biology, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, physics--such disciplines and others, he said, may all contribute to solving any particular research question. Although not new, the development of disciplines like biochemistry and molecular biology demonstrate the progression, with new advances stemming from the blending of the core disciplines of biology and chemistry.

Schools that embrace such cross-disciplinary approaches, Gentile believes, will become the leaders in training the nation's next generation of outstanding scientists.

"My prediction is that schools that can make that leap of faith and move in the direction of integrated science education as being proposed in something like '2010' are the schools that will make the next great leap forward in undergraduate science education," he said. "And schools that resist it will do quite well in the traditional modes of education in which they're presently engaged, but may not make the great leaps forward in providing the community at large with scientists who are best prepared for the growing integration that we're seeing in scientific inquiry."

Gentile is encouraged that Hope has already been modelling many of the national report's recommendations, and is poised to adopt others.

For example, the report stresses hands-on experience, not least of all because it helps students see how their studies matter. Hope, Gentile noted, has involved students in collaborative research with faculty members for decades. Approximately 85 percent of the college's science and mathematics majors conduct such research, including some 120 students full-time during the summer. Since 1990, more than 300 students have co-authored research publications with faculty.

The college's new science center has been designed with cross-disciplinary connections in mind. Currently under construction and scheduled for completion in the fall of 2003, the building will house the departments of biology, biochemistry, chemistry, geological and environmental sciences, nursing and psychology. "The new science building positions us well to take advantage of some of the opportunities in education that a document like '2010' presents as challenges," Gentile said.

The cross-disciplinary ties aren't limited to departments in the building, however. The college's "nuclear group," for example, includes faculty and students from the department of chemistry and the department of physics and engineering. Similarly, mathematician Janet Andersen and biologist Greg Murray received National Science Foundation support in 2000 to develop a case studies-based course that blends their two disciplines. They taught it for the first time this past spring, and have received interest from other schools across the nation--Andersen has even been asked to lead a workshop on the topic in the summer of 2003.

Neither, however, does the college ever consider its program "done," according to Gentile. This summer, for example, members of the Hope science faculty met with colleagues from Harvey Mudd College of Claremont, Calif., for a brainstorming workshop focused on the sort of integration endorsed by the "Bio2010" report.

"Those are the kinds of steps that I think schools are going to have to be taking," Gentile said. "All of us in science education will need to move cautiously, judiciously but relentlessly forward if we are to change the paradigm of what an integrated science education means."

Gentile served on the "Bio2010" writing team as a member of the Board on Life Sciences of the National Research Council, which is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. In addition to Gentile, the "Bio2010" report's authoring committee included faculty members from institutions including Boston University in Massachusetts; Columbia University in New York City; Princeton University in New Jersey; the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif.; Stanford University in California; the University of Arizona at Tucson; the University of California at Berkeley; the University of Texas at Austin; and Yale University in New Haven, Conn.