I got some email today with lots of constructive suggestions (See? Not all my email is evil!) for how we ought to change the education of biology students — such as by giving them a foundation in the history and philosophy of our science, using creationist arguments as bad examples so the students can see the errors for themselves, etc. — and it was absolutely brilliant, even the parts where he disagreed with some things I’d written before. Best email ever!
Of course, what helped is that I spent my summer “vacation” putting together a new freshman first semester course for biology majors that I’m teaching for the first time right now, and it’s exactly the course he described. It was eerie, like one of my future students had invented a time machine and come back into the past to tell me what to do. A lot of the course content is locked up behind a password-protected firewall, I’m afraid, but just to show you what I’m talking about, I’ll put the course schedule below the fold.
The course is called Fundamentals of Genetics, Evolution, and Development, and it’s purpose is to give all of our students a basic understanding of those three topics in the title. One quirk of our curriculum (and it’s a fairly common quirk) is that while we offer upper-level electives in those three, and genetics and evolution at least are implicit in most of our courses, we didn’t until now have a core course that spelled out explicitly that not only must our students understand basic evolutionary theory, but that it is a foundation for future progress in the field. We’re consciously moving away from Evolution Avoidance Syndrome.
This course is intended for freshman biology majors, so unfortunately we can’t dive heavily into the math (they do get a little introduction to it), and few will have much understanding of the molecular basis of the topics. The first big change is that instead of using one of those colossal biology reference books as the primary text for the class, I’m using Science as a Way of Knowing: The Foundations of Modern Biology(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), by John A. Moore. We also use one of those standard texts (Life: The Science of Biology(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), by Sadava, Heller , Orians, Purves, and Hillis) to supplement the general material of the Moore book with some specific details here and there. The plan is that UMM biology majors will get out of here not only knowing how genetics works on a general level and why evolution is the central theory of biology, but they’ll also know who Aristotle, Bacon, Descartes, and Hume were. And they’ll also be able to fillet any creationist poseurs they encounter.
Anyway, here’s the schedule. As glowing bits on a screen, it looks darned good, if you ask me. We’ll see what the students say after they’ve gone through it all in December. (Oh, and I blush a bit to confess that there’s one week in there where I’m playing hooky — I’ve got some outside events that plopped into my lap all at once. These things happen. Don’t worry, the students will have assignments to do, so they won’t be able to turn their brains off.)
|1,2||30 Aug-6 Sep||1-3||The ancient world
The early whys and hows of doing science — the scientific method as a pragmatic, practical way of dealing with the world.
|3||11-13 Sep||4-5||Beginnings of modern science
A transition in the Middle Ages: from revelation, inspiration, and contemplation as the source of knowledge, to observation and experiment.
|4||18-20 Sep||6||Precursors to evolutionary thought
Geology and taxonomy lead the way, and the orderly and complex history of the world begins to be revealed.
|20 Sep||First exam|
|5||25-27 Sep||PZ Myers is gone!
Sorry, gang, I’m giving talks in other parts of the world this week. We may arrange something else for this time.
|6||2-4 Oct||7-8||Evolutionary explanations
Darwin and Wallace: evolution as a logical and necessary explanation of the accumulated evidence. The importance of THEORY.
|7||9-11 Oct||9-10||Evidence for evolution
The power of evolution as an explanatory framework; the continually growing evidence for the theory.
|8||16-18 Oct||Creationism and Intelligent Design
Science and culture in conflict. Social origins of creationist beliefs; common arguments refuted.
|18 Oct||Second exam|
|9||25 Oct||11-13||Cells and pre-Mendelian inheritance
The cell theory and chromosomes. Mitosis, meiosis, gametes, fertilization.
|10||30 Oct-1 Nov||14||Mendel, and a little probability theory
Mendel’s Laws, monohybrid and dihybrid crosses.
|11||6-8 Nov||15||Modern genetics, and a little statistics
Genetics gets more complicated: reconciling genetics with cytology and evolution.
|8 Nov||Third exam|
TH Morgan and Drosophila. Sex and mapping.
|13||20 Nov||17||Modern genetics: DNA, genes, and the central dogma
Beadle, Tatum, Griffith, Avery, Hershey, Chase, Watson, Crick — the foundations of molecular biology.
Making an embryo. The roles of gene, organism, and environment in building form.
|29 Nov||Fourth exam|
|15||4-6 Dec||21-22||Interactions, induction, integration: developmental biology
Molecular genetics, developmental genetics, eco-devo, and evo-devo. The new synthesis?
|16||11-13 Dec||Ethics and the future of biology
The 21st century will be the century of biology. What will we be able to do, and what should we do?
Now you know what I’ll be doing for the next few months — the course above, and also an upper level course in neurobiology. Busy busy busy.