Biology dept. evolves to address needs

by Ashley Zuzek | 10/28/05 5:00am

In a move designed add flexibility to the biology major and alleviate student concerns, the College's biology department is planning to institute sweeping changes that could take effect as early as next fall.

About two months ago, biology professors Elizabeth Smith and Mark McPeek led a retreat to discuss modifications that the department hopes will make the program less rigid and more up-to-date.

"The most significant change made is that there are four majors now," Smith said. "We're changing to a system where there is one major with many concentrations that can be tailored to students' specific needs."

The new program will offer five foundation courses, of which biology majors will have to take three. After that, students can choose between 17 or 18 concentrations, allowing them greater flexibility in their interests.

Human biology, an enormously popular class, would count for credit in the restructured major. Currently, many biology majors elect not to take the class because it does not count towards the major.

"I was mainly interested in human biology, but it was not offered [as a major]," Katie Lang '06, a general biology major, said. "I felt it was really lacking."

The second major change deals with updating the department's structure, which has not been altered in over a decade. The planned modifications would reflect the interdisciplinary nature of biology within the one-major program.

"Biology has changed enormously in the past 15 years," McPeek said. "Today, in modern biology, people are doing research from all fields. The boundaries in biology have disappeared, so it's stupid to teach that way."

Under the new program, it will be easier for students to incorporate other departments and majors into their studies, McPeek said.

The department administered an anonymous survey to determine student opinion in hopes of making the department more user-friendly, Smith said. The survey yielded many student complaints about the lack of flexibility within the major and courses that were designed to "weed out" potential majors.

"Intro classes are generally pretty weak, probably as a function of their huge size and difficulty," Lang said.

The new system will address these complaints, according to biology department chair Edward Berger.

"The hope is that by offering all of these foundation courses, class size will decrease," Berger said.

Another important structural change in the department would involve an introductory class that would better prepare students for foundation courses.

"It would be a topics-based course, like a freshman seminar, which would provide students with the knowledge and language for the foundation courses," Berger said. "It would be taught by two faculty [members], so students would get a broader perspective."

The changes in flexibility within the department would also improve student-faculty relations.

"Every student that decides to be a biology major will be hooked up with a faculty member who has the same interests within the field," McPeek said.

Although the biology department has not yet instituted any of the proposed changes, the new system could be in place as early as next fall if department officials finalize their plan and submit it for administrative approval by the end of November.

"Everyone is very busy," Berger said. "But we are trying to meet the deadline."

Advertise your student group in The Dartmouth for free!