Friday, August 29, 2014

What are students interested in and does it matter?

PZ Myers [Oh, dear] picked up on a tweet from Jeffrey Ros-Ibarra [Tell me botany doesn’t have a recruitment problem]. He posted the result of a survey of 800 first year students.


This shouldn't come as a big surprise to any Sandwalk readers. The question is, what should we do about it?

Most university professors share this bias so they are very comfortable with teaching biochemistry from a strictly animal (mostly human) perspective. When challenged, they point out that students are mostly interested in animals and themselves. They think we should design our courses to accommodate these interests because that's what students want to hear. I call these professors the "caterers."

A minority (that includes me) look upon this data as a challenge. Our goal is to convince students that they should broaden their interests and learn about other species. People like me will emphasize broad principles and concepts that apply to ALL living organisms. We teach comparative biochemistry and talk a lot about evolution. These guys are the "challengers." (They're also the ones with the low student evaluations.)

The easiest way to tell the difference between the two types of professor in introductory biochemistry courses is to see whether they teach photosynthesis or the glyoxylate shunt, and whether they spend as much time on gluconeogenesis (the most ancient pathway) as they do on glycolysis (the derived pathway). It's also informative to observe whether they cover the biosynthesis of amino acids or whether they treat amino acids as food.

It's a really bad sign if they spend any time at all on the difference between "essential" and "nonessential" amino acids.


14 comments :

  1. The problem is that a very large number of "biology" or "biochemistry" students aren't really interested in biology or biochemistry as such -- they are there simply as a requirement to get into med school and probably aren't going to be persuaded in becoming interested in non-metazoa. It's depressing, but that's reality.

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    1. Are you saying that we shouldn't even try?

      Keep in mind that 90% of the students who think they are going to med school aren't going to med school. They might become teachers or politicians or even scientists.

      As for the ones who DO get into med school, I think I could get them interested in Plasmodium falciparum (protozoan), or infectious bacteria, or even Candida (yeast). Heck, I might even persuade them that learning about photosynthesis will make them better appreciate being out on the golf course.

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    2. I would like to see a breakdown of the 92% into those interested in humans vs non-human animals. Lumping the premeds who only care about human physiology in with students more generally interested in biology makes these numbers uninformative.

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    3. The problem is that a very large number of "biology" or "biochemistry" students aren't really interested in biology or biochemistry as such -- they are there simply as a requirement to get into med school and probably aren't going to be persuaded in becoming interested in non-metazoa. It's depressing, but that's reality.

      That's mostly a problem in countries like the US, Canada and UK. To my knowledge, in most of Europe, you don't go from a degree in biology to "med school", since you would have to start from scratch for a medical degree.

      The problem is more profound and denotes an emphasis on animal biology even in strictly general biology degrees, regardless of country.

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  2. One problem here is that most organisms can neither be seen in the field nor cultured in the lab, so what we can generally know about their biology is that they have genomes that environmental sequencing can sample. What are you going to do about that?

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    1. You cannot do much to get people excited about them. After all that plot does not have sufficient resolution - I am ready to bet that those 90% of people who care about animals include at least 75% who care about vertebrates, with invertebrates being given much less attention, much of that going to the prettier to look at insect orders. And invertebrates are visible and at least somewhat known to people (aside from the marine ones)

      But the fact that there are many dozens, if not hundreds of eukaryotic lineages diverging so deeply that they should have the same rank as animals, is such a fundamental, worldview-changing fact that everyone should be aware of it. And that's without even going into prokaryotes... So at the very minimum a much better job can done at teaching these things - it may not get people excited, but at least they would be informed...

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    2. What are you going to do about that?

      Don't you love the puzzle?!

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  3. Well, at least we know that if someone gets into botany they might really interested in botany, not the shitty students who just go with the flow.

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  4. I was in on a committee reviewing intro biology textbooks once. We wanted one book for the whole 4-quarter series. On botany, they ranged from poor to those that had no chapter on the topic at all. One member (a zoologist) encouraged us to find one good on botany, but we botanists knew it wasn't out there and we were used to coping with limited textbook material.

    At that university, one of the four intro biology quarters was titled Botany. (It covered basic cell biology, too.) Some students felt they shouldn't have to take botany since they were interested in animals (often just humans).

    So there is a problem. I've tried to overcome it with enthusiasm, beautiful pictures, food chains, other plant/animal interactions, the general weirdness of mycorrhizal fungi, and more enthusiasm. I talk about the fact that protista are so diverse that we'd treat many of the groups as kingdoms if they were more common. I mention that the most basic biochemical diversity is in the prokaryotes, but I can't go into detail there. The diversity of living things is truly amazing, wonderful.

    By the way, my MA is in bird behavior, but my doctorate (many years later) is in plants. I guess it took a while for my appreciation of biodiversity to spread to plants. :-)

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  5. For my research, I specifically chose plants because I hate being mean to animals! ;)

    My son has just graduated in biology, and has surprised me by developing a huge interest in all things botanical. The main reason: a hugely knowledgeable and enthusiastic teacher.

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    1. Allan, when people ask why I switched from birds to plants, I tell them plants are a lot easier to catch than birds. And it's true, though only part of the reason. Another important part was a kind, patient teacher who was also a great plant taxonomist.

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    2. Yeah, but birds are more fun to watch.

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  6. It might be interesting to go back into high school and see what is happening there. If a student shows up in the biological sciences at college, there is a good chance this interest formed during the prior four years. This will vary a lot by locality. College professors, though, can have a look at their local situation and get involved.

    My wife (high school biology) would just as soon teach the big picture, the basics, not the human or even animal derived version (as you suggest) of the bio she teaches and she does that. But many of the students are in fact interested in humans, and in the school she current teaches in there is a lot of pre-med interest.

    On the other hand, a lot of her students (maybe 10%?) end up spending a minimum of two months in a research lab at a major institution in the year to 18 months after she has them. Some of that research is human oriented, simply because it is better funded, but even there, the research is very fundamental so not that human biased. eg. in biophysics (my wife's main area for her research outside of teaching) it is more about individual electrons stuck to specific molecules than about being an animal vs. a fungus.

    The point is, some of the students (at lease 1 in 10) in her AP classes are being trained to do some kind of real biology, and somewhat more (maybe 2 in 10) will head for the health professions. She and her colleagues do not push them towards the human or animalish subset of biology. Some drag in that direction, but others simply benefit from deep non-specific training because they end up applying that right away in their pre-college post-AP bio research internships.

    How to get involved: Hook up with some teachers. That's the hard part, they may fear outsiders or simply be difficult to reach. But once you are in contact offer a day of teaching. Be prepared to give the same class five times, of course. Produce a module about the topic that they need covered better and that you think should be expanded on in HS biology. Teach it every year in their class for a couple of years until the teacher is ready to take your material and run with it, then pick a different topic. There are probably three or four topics that could be handled this way. I've done this with human evolution related topics, neurobiology and neuroanatomy, diet and evolution, and (for middle school) some basic anthropology. It is fun, rewarding, really hard work (being an expert on a topic does not confer expertise in a high school setting!), and I think very effective.


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  7. It cannot be denied that large animals and flowering plants, and a very select number of microorganisms, are particularly important to us and to our welfare. So while I would like to see more research directed towards, say, nematodes, I can understand what is going on here.

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