Improving Biology Education: It's a Numbers Game

Issue Date: 
October 20, 2014

Math is increasingly important to understanding and investigating the world of biology because quantitative biology, computational biology, and computer-based modeling approaches have emerged as important modes of inquiry.

But, says Pitt’s Samuel Donovan, teaching methods haven’t always kept pace with developments in the field.

To help bridge the divide and make sure that undergraduate students nationwide are prepared to engage with modern biology, Donovan and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and The College of William and Mary were recently awarded a $2.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation to establish the Quantitative Undergraduate Biology Education and Synthesis (QUBES) project.

“Faculty development is key to improving undergraduate biology education,” says Donovan, a principal investigator on the grant and a biology lecturer in Pitt’s Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. “Biology is very dynamic right now, and faculty who earned their PhDs 10 years ago are likely to be teaching new techniques in which they don’t have direct experience. Adding to this challenge is the fact that there are diverse types of undergraduate institutions and an uneven distribution of expertise in quantitative biology—not everyone has the luxury of having a dedicated quantitative biologist down the hall to consult with.”

Donovan and his project partners plan to leverage existing information and communications technologies as part of a cost-effective and scalable solution to the problem. Using a collaborative platform developed at Purdue University, QUBES will work with faculty groups around the country to share pedagogic techniques and expertise on data management, data visualization, and other aspects of quantitative biology nationwide.

“Biologists are working online. They often share their data and make analysis tools publically accessible. Undergraduates need to learn these research tools,” Donovan says. “There are so many opportunities for undergrads to contribute to research. The way research is done today, you can access a supercomputer from your laptop, and we need to help teachers take advantage of these resources and use them with students.”

At the end of the five-year grant, Donovan says that he hopes the project will have helped to change the culture of undergraduate biology education so that what goes on in classrooms more closely reflects the work that scientists do. 

“Mathematics and quantitative analysis are the tools of modern biology and are more central now than ever before,” he says. “Students need to have experiences with quantitative biology to be informed citizens, to fit into a modern workplace, and to pursue careers in science.”