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NSF Grant Supports Development of
Biology-Mathematics Course

Posted November 7, 2000

HOLLAND -- A grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) is helping professors from two Hope College departments develop a course that will take a new approach to integrating their two disciplines.

The project, "Integrating Mathematics and Biology: A Case Studies Approach to Linear Algebra," is being led by Dr. Janet Andersen, associate professor of mathematics, and Dr. K. Greg Murray, associate professor of biology. The $71,175 from the NSF will provide support as they develop the course for debut in the spring or fall of 2002.

The course will be geared toward biology and mathematics majors simultaneously. It will feature real- life examples taken from published biological research chosen to represent a variety of biological and mathematical topics. Students will receive academic credit in both disciplines: two hours in biology, and two in mathematics.

The goal, according to Andersen and Murray, will be to provide meaningful yet different benefits for both sets of students. While the mathematics majors will indeed learn mathematics, the hope is that they will benefit especially from receiving in-depth experience in how their discipline can be applied. While the biology students will learn biology, the greatest gain for them, the professors feel, will be in receiving a greater grounding in how mathematics is used in their area of science.

Especially significantly, the students will be split into four-member teams mixed by discipline, so that they can pool their specialized background in working through the material together.

While other schools have offered courses such as "mathematics for biology majors," the mix envisioned-- professors from each discipline team-teaching a blended group of students--is new, according to Andersen.

"I can't find any evidence out there of anybody who's tried something similar," Andersen said.

"To some extent, this is going to be an experiment in 'Can it be done?,'" she said. "If we can, I think it'll be a huge benefit to our students."

The two professors have been talking about the idea for the past seven years, each feeling that such a course would have been helpful when they were undergraduates. For example, Murray noted that while mathematics wasn't stressed when he was an undergraduate biology major, the discipline became essential in graduate school.

He hopes that having a mathematics course that relates to their discipline will help Hope's biology students see that mathematics does matter to them-- especially when, in the case-studies approach, they have a chance to work with the mathematical models themselves.

"One of the biggest problems in learning math, especially for science students, is in learning context," he said. "Having some personal connection is the best way to be engaged of all."

Andersen and Murray also note that while they will be the ones teaching the course, they will also, in a way, be students, gaining as instructors the greater depth outside of their majors that they wish they'd had as students.

"A primary motivation for both of us is that we'll get to learn new things, too," Murray said.

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