Most biology majors are not being adequately prepared for research careers in biomedical science, which is becoming ever more technical and quantitative, concludes a new report released today by the National Academy of Science's Research Council (NRC). The panel found that undergraduates headed for biomedical research need more math, chemistry, and physics than they currently get.
Many of the recommended changes are longtime favorites of science education reformers (Science, 31 August 2000, p. 1607), such as offering thought-provoking lab exercises and independent research projects. To improve quantitative skills, faculty members should include more concepts from math and physical sciences in biology classes. Ideally, the report says, the entire curriculum would be revamped to add more heft. "Most undergraduates are being prepared for the biology of the past, not the future," says panel chair Lubert Stryer of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.
But these changes face many obstacles, including the expense of developing new course materials and the conservative influence of the Medical College Admission Test, a national test that all would-be U.S. medical students must take. When it comes to curricula, there is also a massive amount of inertia in higher education: "People say the only institution more conservative is the [Catholic] Church," says Peter Bruns, vice president for grants and special programs at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), which helped fund the study. Even when reform is on the agenda, however, it's hard for departments to agree on how to carry it out.
The report urges faculty members to develop interdisciplinary courses, and it offers several sample curricula that could help better prepare undergraduates for biological research. But the panel also recommended that each department analyze its own needs. "It's very wise that the committee didn't try to spell out specific recipes, because one size does not fit all," comments biologist Shirley Tilghman, president of Princeton University.
One way to achieve change is by sweetening the pot. Toward that end, next week HHMI will award $1 million over 4 years to each of 20 senior faculty members who have proposed ways to improve undergraduate biology education at their institutions. The idea is to provide role models as well as the necessary resources. That approach makes good sense to Stryer, who says that energetic leadership is a key ingredient in making the panel's recommendations a reality.