Quantitative Biology

in the Classroom

Project Summary

Faculty in the Departments of Biology and Mathematics and Statistics at Radford University are cooperating to develop strategies and materials for improving the quantitative skills of biology students.  Twenty-eight percent of our students are first generation college students, 16 percent are minorities, and 23 percent receive Pell Grants.  To meet the needs of this student population, faculty teams will develop two new courses: a freshman level mathematics for biology course and a sophomore level statistics for biology course.  The two departments will closely link the mathematics for biology course with two introductory biology courses: BIOL 131 Ecology and Adaptation and BIOL 160 Introductory Seminar in Biology.  Because these linked courses will involve eleven contact hours per week, students will learn and practice fundamental quantitative skills at a pace that will not be overwhelming, but will encourage breadth and depth of exposure.  The linkage among the three courses will also provide a rich biological context making the quantitative skills meaningful for students entering the major.  Through an intentional plan of vertical integration, students will later expand and further develop these basic skills in the remaining three courses of the biology core curriculum and in most elective courses.  Students interested in professional careers in biology will use this foundation as a stepping-stone to calculus and other higher-level mathematics courses.

The two departments will explicitly link the new statistics for biology course to BIOL 232 Organismal Biology taken during the second semester of the sophomore year.  By this point, students will have considerable practice using basic statistical tests as part of earlier lab activities that stress asking questions, forming hypotheses, designing tests, gathering and analyzing data, and presenting results.   The statistics for biology course will build on this foundation by opening the “black box,” and engage students in exploring the underlying assumptions and principles of statistical tests.  Students will implement this new knowledge as part of more independent and extended research projects in BIOL 232 labs.  They will further expand and develop these statistical skills in advanced biology electives.

The project incrementally develops students' quantitative skills to increasingly sophisticated levels.   Teams of faculty will design interdisciplinary course modules to engage students in activities that place fundamental quantitative skills in biological context through lab and field experiments closely linked to topics covered in lecture and discussion.  This project will build on earlier NSF sponsored activities by the Principle Investigators that emphasized science as a process, multidisciplinary learning, and student research.

This project aims at affecting a broader impact by providing a model for teaching mathematics in biology at demographically similar colleges and universities across the nation.  The Principle Investigators will make all course modules available on the web.  Project personnel will present papers at national meetings and publish results in peer-reviewed journals of science education.  Through a seminar series, outside experts will visit the two departments and observe project activities in action.  Radford University will host a national conference for biology educators from demographically similar colleges and universities.  This conference will provide a forum for disseminating the model developed at Radford University and integrating it with approaches developed elsewhere.