The University of Toronto is in the process of reorganizing its introductory biology courses. The new proposal is to offer two half courses in first year and two in second year. The expectation is that all life science students will take all four courses.
To give you an idea of the numbers, the anticipated enrolment for the first year courses is 1920 students and for the second year courses about 1500 students. These are the courses that will make the biggest impact on our students when it comes to understanding basic biology.
Here they are ....
There's a lot that's wrong with this proposal but I'm focusing on the teaching of evolution. Everyone agrees that it's important to teach evolution and teach it correctly. I don't think a course entitled "Adaptation and Biodiversity" is going to do an adequate job, especially since the fossil record is completely ignored and there's no serious attempt to teach the history of life. Population genetics gets only a single lecture in the middle of the course.
I'm trying to start a revolution by convincing my colleagues to vote down these proposals on the grounds that we can do much better. At the very least, the decision should be postponed for a year so we can debate the issues. The proposals were first circulated last week and the recommendation of the Life Sciences Curriculum Committee is going to be decided today. If they recommend in favor of adopting the proposals, then it's highly unlikely that the recommendation will be overturned at the next level. That's no way to run a university.
Yesterday I bumped into my colleague, Paul Hamel, as I was on my way to Tim Hortons. He asked me what I was up to and I told him I was trying to start a revolution. His advice? "Don't quit your day job!"
(In order to appreciate this comment, you probably need to know that Paul is one of the most radical members of our faculty and he's been fighting to change the system, and our society, for several decades.)
I think most of you can see the problem with the BIO
That's not the only thing wrong with the courses but this isn't the place to go into more detail. The problem I face is that it is very difficult to convince my colleages that there's something wrong with the way we propose to teach evolution since very few of them understand evolution. In my case the problem is compounded by the fact that the course instructor, Spencer Barrett, is a highly respected evolutionary biologist with lots of publications in prestigious journals.
I'm not optimistic. Making changes at a big university is like trying to herd together a bunch of cats and get them to cooperate in turning a full loaded supertanker. It can be done but it's a lot of work.
Anyway, this is a long-winded introduction to the real reason for this posting. I want to highlight a posting by Ryan Gregory who explains why it's important to teach evolution and what level of detail is needed [How detailed an understanding of evolution do we need?]. Here's a teaser, get on over to Genomicron and read the whole thing.
If you mean “students enrolled in science programs,” either undergraduates or grad students (as in our study), then I would say that a good working knowledge of evolutionary theory, though not a full understanding of all its nuances, should be a major goal. Again, evolution is the unifying principle of biology, and without grasping how it works, one cannot make sense of the history and current diversity of life on this planet.
UPDATE: The committee met and the courses were approved without much debate.