Biology, the most popular major among freshman at Geneseo, is arguably the most time-consuming—and not in a good way. I have several friends who used to be biology majors. What is unusual is that they all eventually switched to chemistry. They didn’t leave biology because they couldn’t take the workload or the difficulty; they left because they thought it was boring. Overrun with students, the biology department has fallen into the common trap in science education of designing classes that manage to be both difficult and trivial. Introductory courses in the major are better at culling the herd than training scientists.
Culling the herd isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however. Upper-level laboratories are expensive and 300-level classes are filled to the brim as it is. With hundreds of wide-eyed, aspiring medical doctors entering the pre-health track every year, the department has to find out who can make the cut. Science is hard and it’s not for everyone.
The criteria by which the haves are separated from the have-nots, however, do not necessarily reflect what makes a good scientist. The main skill assessed in general biology is the ability to cram mountains upon mountains of information by rote. Most freshmen that are smart and hardworking enough to be potential researchers or doctors can survive this, but not all. Even then, it can suck the joy from the discipline. For example, chemistry focuses on solving problems, but biology is about memorization.
This is a widely held notion––one that has no bearing on biology as a discipline, but reflects how it is taught at the lower levels. A common refrain is that biology professors lie to students less and less as the class level increases. That is, the information taught to freshmen is such a gross oversimplification that it is often factually incorrect. Upper-level classes put a greater emphasis on understanding the logic of a system or the experiments that lead to our current understanding.
I see no valid reason for this progression. In mathematics, skills are built upon each other––you need calculus to do real analysis. Geneseo must decide if students are any better prepared to tackle the thermodynamic intricacies of microtubule formation just because they memorized a one-sentence definition of “microtubule” two years ago.
The biology department has taken positive steps on this matter. BIOL 116: N/General Biology Laboratory is a skills-based course that emphasizes critical thinking, data analysis and experimental design. Rather than a breadth of information, this lab exposes freshmen to skills that are universally applicable. The “pre-major” system requires a C+ or higher in two biology classes before someone can become a full major. Basically, you have to thrive at the lower level in order to survive at the upper level.
The English department recently remodeled the entire major. In the humanities, math and physics departments, there have been changes in undergraduate education at the national level and Geneseo has followed suit. No such revolution has taken place in the life sciences, although it’s long overdue.
Geneseo’s model of “teaching to think” is an admirable one. When professors guide students through the process of critical thinking and emphasize understanding over memorization, we take away more from the class. This is true for all disciplines, including biology. Freshmen should be introduced to the science of unraveling the beautiful complexity of life rather than being forced to distill it into a long list of factoids and vocabulary.