Hope Professor Part of National Effort
To Shape Biology Teaching
Posted September 10, 2002
HOLLAND -- 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
"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
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.