Improving Quantitative Skills of CSULA Life Science Majors

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Title of Abstract: Improving Quantitative Skills of CSULA Life Science Majors

Name of Author: Elizabeth Torres
Author Company or Institution: California State University Los Angeles
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses, Bioinformatics
Course Levels: Across the Curriculum, Introductory Course(s), Upper Division Course(s)
Approaches: Assessment, New mathematics curriculum
Keywords: Curriculum change, modeling, Bioinformatics Minor, Interdisciplinary connections, Quantitative skills

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Silvia Heubach, California State University Los Angeles

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: A few years ago, the Biological Sciences Department at CSULA assessed the quantitative skills of Biology and Microbiology majors, and made recommendations for their improvement. Based on those recommendations, faculty from five departments applied for and received an NIH T36 grant to support curricular changes in the life sciences. We used a three-pronged approach: * modifications in the mathematics, introductory biology, and physics; * establishment of the Center for Interdisciplinary Quantitative Analysis (CINQA); * development of a new bioinformatics minor.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: The mathematics curriculum for life science majors was changed to include three new courses: Introduction to Mathematical Models in Biology (Math 105), replacing Trigonometry; Applied Calculus I (Math 204); Applied Calculus II (Math 205). Math concepts are explained in the context of biological applications. Students use Excel and Mathematica to create simulations and analyze dynamical systems, tying in with the V&C goal of Ability to Use Quantitative Reasoning, Modeling, and Simulation. Math 105 is most distinct, introducing discrete dynamical systems and basic probability. Trigonometry has been reduced to aspects needed for modeling periodic phenomena. Microbiology majors are required to complete Math 105 and Math 204; no calculus was previously required. Biology majors take Math 204 and 205. The introductory biology courses now have math requirements. A new elective called Mathematical Models in Biology (Math/Biol 480) was developed so that math and life science majors work together on projects that explore more complex systems. In the introductory biology sequence, we incorporated quantitative exercises connected to topics in the math course. In the general physics sequence, we designed new experiments focused on biology applications, tying in with the V & C goal of making better connections between disciplines. Laptop computers and new equipment for biology-focused experiments were added. We established CINQA ( that supports interdisciplinary seminars, faculty workshops, laptops, and interdepartmental collaborations. We created a Minor in Bioinformatics (BINF), with biology and computer science majors as the target population. Lower division requirements include two programming courses, two introductory biology courses, and one statistics/probability course. An existing course, Bioinformatics and Computational Biology (BINF 400) is prerequisite to newly developed upper division electives.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: For the curricular changes, one measure of success is the ability to obtain approval for the courses or new programs from curriculum committees at all levels, and to make the changes permanent. We surveyed students in courses from all three disciplines on whether they appreciate and see the connection between physics, mathematics and biology, and on their attitudes towards mathematics and its importance to the life sciences. We plan to evaluate quantitative exercises in the biology labs before and after the implementation of the mathematics sequence to assess whether students can transfer the knowledge from their mathematics classes to their biology classes and labs. We have examined pass rates of students in the introductory biology sequence and their correlation with the level of mathematics of students entering the biology sequence. We are also studying the progression of life science majors through the mathematics courses. To assess the impact of CINQA, we tracked the number of participants in the seminars and surveyed faculty who have participated in the training workshops. We also plan to quantify the connections made between faculty from the CINQA disciplines.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: We achieved our curriculum goals with the new mathematics and BINF courses, and the BINF minor program. The new math sequence started in Fall 2011, and all three courses (Math 105, 204, and 205) have been taught at least five times, with a total enrollment to date of 478, 248, and 138 students, respectively. The BINF minor program was implemented as of Fall 2012. The degree programs for Biology and Microbiology BS degrees were modified, and new math requirements for Biology courses were approved. All of these curricular changes appear in the University Catalog. Life science majors complete their math courses much earlier in their academic programs, one of the problems identified before changes. Preliminary results show an increase in the new course pass rates between 10% and 17% when compared to the old courses. Assessments of student attitudes towards mathematics and its importance to biology show positive change, as does the appreciation of the connections between biology, mathematics, and physics. We tracked laptop use as a measure of changed teaching practices. The laptops have been used in a total of 57 classes in math and biology. One set of laptops has been permanently incorporated into the three labs in the general physics series. We have not assessed the BINF minor. Due to budget cuts, low enrollment courses are being canceled and the elective courses in the BINF minor have not yet been offered. We plan to track the number of students who complete a BINF minor and their post-graduate careers. CINQA has hosted 25 research talks, with at least 500 students and faculty in attendance. Faculty workshop surveys responses indicate that the faculty training workshops were very helpful, and that faculty are very interested in on-going training. Ties between the mathematics and biology departments have been strengthened. Recent hires in applied mathematics and population genetics found CINQA to be an attractive aspect in their interest in CSULA.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: The dramatic budget cuts in the CSU system made it impossible to offer low enrollment courses such as the new BINF minor courses. We also did not anticipate quite how difficult it would be to recruit a healthy number of students to start the minor in this budget climate. Challenges that were not entirely unexpected but proved to be bigger than initially anticipated were logistical and administrative hurdles. Coordination of scheduling, advisement issues, resistance to increase in units, or the development of a specialized calculus sequence made the process of getting approval for the new courses much harder and more time consuming. An additional problem was the fact that the most innovative course (Math 105) is not a requirement for biology majors, but rather a prerequisite for the Calculus courses. It has no equivalent at the community colleges, and so transfer issues arise.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: We gave presentations on the new mathematics courses at three conferences with different audiences: BEER 2012 (Math biologists), JMM 2013 (mathematics and math biology faculty), and CSUPERB 2013 (Life science faculty). At the recent T36 Director’s meeting, the institutions that received a T36 curricular grant gave a presentation that showcased the different approaches and discussed impact and challenges. This group plans to create a common website on which the curricular materials, assessment instruments, and other information about these projects will be made available. A joint publication about these projects and their impact is also planned. We also plan to have more specialized publications on certain aspects (e.g., activities, assessment) to disseminate best practices. The group of T36 directors is also in the process of establishing a group on the PULSE website, which will link to the common website once it has been established.

Acknowledgements: This project was funded with the support the National Institutes of Health: NIGMS T36 grant. Assessment was conducted in partnership with the Program Evaluation and Research Collaborative (PERC) at CSULA.