Professor has high hopes for $1 million College of Biological Sciences award

The professor hopes to integrate more quantitative thinking into CBS courses.

by Sara Schweid

A University professor’s $1 million award will help her change the face of the biology curriculum.

Claudia Neuhauser, head of the department of ecology, evolution and behavior in the College of Biological Sciences, plans to use the award from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to refocus the college’s math curriculum to better integrate math and science.

“The changes would teach biology students to think in quantitative terms, which is what the future of biology will be,” said Victor Bloomfield, professor in the department of biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics.

Neuhauser is one of 20 professors from across the nation to receive this award.

She plans to use the grant to create statistics classes focusing on biological problems and to “tune-up” courses for faculty to brush up their math skills, said Robin Wright, associate dean for faculty and academic affairs.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute is the nation’s largest nongovernmental supporter of science education. It has offered more than $1 billion in grants since 1988.

Last year the institute invited 100 research universities to nominate two faculty members for the award. A University panel was created to decide who would be nominated, said Linda Ellinger, assistant vice provost for undergraduate education.

“We were looking for outstanding scientists who are committed to science education,” said Cindy Fox Aisen, from the institute’s communications office.

Some College of Biological Sciences professors said the shift in curriculum is important. “Currently, students take biology courses separately from their math course,” said Wright. “This implies that those disciplines are separate and separable, and they are not.”

Neuhauser has experienced the difficulties of inspiring biology students in a math class. After teaching a calculus class to a group of biology majors nine years ago, Neuhauser realized there was a big problem.

“Students lacked motivation,” Neuhauser wrote in an article for the University. “The material was far removed from their interests and it was difficult to engage them.”

To change this, Neuhauser wrote a new textbook, “Calculus for Biology,” which she has used since. With the biology focus, students became more engaged in the material.

“What a difference the biology focus makes,” Neuhauser said in the article. Instead of experiencing boredom and math anxiety, her students were engaged and motivated.

These changes not only would affect College of Biological Sciences students, but also students taking biology courses as a liberal education requirement. Students would be exposed to the importance of the interconnectedness of math and science, Wright said.

Integration of disciplines also would allow students to be exposed constantly to math and science.

“I forgot a lot of calculus,” said Melissa Lee, a second-year College of Biological Sciences student who hasn’t taken a math course in two years. “If I had seen it more often, it would have helped a lot.”

Wright sees this as a step forward for the College of Biological Sciences, one which will move the school closer to achieving its motto: to create the biology of tomorrow.