Biochemistry and undergraduate liberal education
Article first published online: 1 MAY 2007
Copyright © 2007 International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Inc.
Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education
Volume 35, Issue 3, pages 167–168, May/June 2007
How to Cite
Wolfson, A. J. (2007), Biochemistry and undergraduate liberal education. Biochem. Mol. Biol. Educ., 35: 167–168. doi: 10.1002/bmb.61
- Issue published online: 1 MAY 2007
- Article first published online: 1 MAY 2007
- Manuscript Received: 21 MAR 2007
In November of 2006, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology received a grant from the Teagle Foundation. The Foundation's aim for this program is to engage disciplinary societies in assessing the relationship of the goals of undergraduate concentration in their discipline and those of liberal education. ASBMB was one of only six societies to receive the award, and the only scientific society.
The Teagle grant provides an opportunity for ASBMB to examine undergraduate programs in biochemistry and molecular biology and evaluate the success of their graduates. The Society first published a recommended undergraduate curriculum 15 years ago, and has since modified it in recent years to emphasize skills rather than coursework. In addition to defining core content in chemistry, biology, and allied fields, ASBMB lists the following skills to be achieved :
Understanding of the fundamentals of chemistry and biology and the key principles of biochemistry and molecular biology
Awareness of the major issues at the forefront of the discipline
Ability to assess primary papers critically
Good quantitative skills such as the ability to accurately and reproducibly prepare reagents for experiments
Ability to dissect a problem into its key features
Ability to design experiments and understand the limitations of what the experimental approach can and cannot tell you
Ability to interpret experimental data and identify consistent and inconsistent components
Ability to design follow-up experiments
Ability to work safely and effectively in a laboratory
Awareness of the available resources and how to use them
Ability to use computers as information and research tools
Ability to collaborate with other researchers
Ability to use oral, written, and visual presentations to present their work to both a science-literate and a science-non-literate audience
Ability to think in an integrated manner and look at problems from different perspectives
Awareness of the ethical issues in the molecular life sciences
In spite of publishing these goals, ASBMB has never systematically asked departments how these skills are imparted or what outcomes we would expect if they were put into practice. To begin an assessment of our programs, as well as addressing questions of course design and pedagogy, we invite members of the biochemical education community, particularly readers of BAMBEd, to respond to some or all of the following questions:
In which courses at your institution are the skills listed above introduced, reinforced, utilized? Specific examples of assignments are welcome.
Are these skills (particularly those relating to written and oral communication, computer literacy, teamwork, ethical reasoning, and integrative learning) viewed by students and faculty as add-ons or integral to the major?
Are there ways to include even broader goals of a liberal education  such as citizenship, diversity, and character?
What evidence will be taken as sufficient by the biochemistry/molecular biology community that new teaching methods and a broader curriculum produce graduates at least as good as those trained in traditional ways?
Can a student majoring in a different field gain skills in inquiry and critical thinking through taking a biochemistry/molecular biology course? How much background is needed beforehand so that sufficient depth is obtained?
Is an integrated approach  a better one than separate introductory courses? Do such integrated courses serve non-majors better than traditional ones? What is the right balance of each science within an interdisciplinary course?
Please send responses to Adele Wolfson (firstname.lastname@example.org), and also let us know if you would be interested in follow-up discussions.
As you can see from this list of questions, the project is an ambitious one. We aim to evaluate both the ways in which a biochemistry/molecular biology major prepares students to be scientists and to be broadly educated. In addition to gathering information from undergraduate programs, we plan to survey graduate programs and employers about how well our graduates are prepared for graduate study and the workplace. Our findings will be published in a White Paper and will be showcased at an annual meeting of ASBMB. We expect that BAMBEd will be a partner in evaluating and disseminating the results. BAMBEd contributors and readers are well aware of the increasingly important role of assessment in educational research and planning, and can lead efforts to incorporate assessment into program design.
Although many of us are engaged in curricular reform and new approaches to teaching on our own campuses, the Teagle award encourages us to bring these issues to the full membership of ASBMB. As Jeanne Narum has observed , “The department or program is the point at which faculty translate abstract learning goals into practice. Increasingly, an important resource for departmental leaders at the campus level is found through their national disciplinary societies, many of which are actively engaged in identifying, distilling, and promoting best practices in the undergraduate setting.”
The goal of the Teagle project is to ground our recommendations of best practices in data, and to insure that all biochemistry/molecular biology programs are encouraged in these best practices.
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