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You Say, ‘Bio-Math,’ I Say, ‘Math-Bio’: Crossing Science Education Divide

September 3, 2010

Special issue of CBE””Life Sciences Education journal crosses the old ‘numbers-wet stuff’ divide

The old joke is a joke no more. In a special September issue of the ASCB’s online journal, CBE””Life Sciences Education (CBE-LSE), the adage that biology is for science students who don’t do math is laid to rest forever. “Bio-math” or “math-bio” is in the future for students of both disciplines, say the contributors of seven essays and 17 research articles on new ways to integrate mathematical thinking into biology education and introduce biological problems into math learning.

“The national scientific and academic community has issued repeated clarion calls for revising college biology curricula such that mathematical and computational preparation for future life scientists reflects the tools and practices of science,” explains Pat Marsteller of Emory University. Marsteller acted as special issue co-editor with John Jungck of Beloit College. “This issue celebrates progress on incorporating quantitative reasoning into biology courses and integrating biological exemplars into mathematics courses,” she said.

“BIO2010,” a 2003 report by the National Research Council, pointed out that genomics, bioinformatics, and quantitative biology of all kinds were already driving cutting-edge research in basic and clinical bioscience. The report concluded that 21st century science students at all levels had to be prepared for a brave new interdisciplinary world. In response to BIO2010, the contributors to this special issue of CBE-LSE offer “how to” advice and “best methods” analysis on bridging the traditionally wide gap between math and biology skills, especially for undergraduates. In “From Biology to Mathematical Models and Back,” Kendrick Shaw and colleagues report on teaching modeling to biology students and biology to math and engineering students. Irene M. Evans and Yolanda V. Tra describe using DNA microarray analysis as a two-way bridge between math and biology classes. Other articles explore the biology”“math interface in the context of student diversity and team-based student research and through imaginative approaches such as “beanbag biology.”

Perhaps the most striking visual example of integrated bio-math education comes from Andrej Ã… orgo of the University of Maribor in Slovenia. To demonstrate the power of fractal geometry in modeling complex biological structures, Ã… orgo and his students formed a giant human fractal by lying prone on the floor of a university rotunda and extending their arms and legs into a multi-pointed, concentric fractal star. A photograph of Ã… orgo’s human fractal taken from above is featured on the cover of the special issue of CBE-LSE.

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