Is There Any Common Curriculum for Undergraduate Biology Majors in the 21st Century?

By Cheesman, Kerry French, Donald; Cheesman, Ian; Swails, Nancy; Thomas, Jerry

A survey of biology departments in 1990 led to publication of a de facto curriculum for the training of undergraduate biology majors. Knowledge of the biological sciences has changed considerably since then, and the present study attempts to find out whether or not undergraduate requirements have changed as a result. In fact, little has changed, although the molecular areas of biology are more likely to be required now than they were in 1990. In the absence of a national accrediting body for biology, questions remain about whether there needs to be a standardized curriculum and, if so, what it should contain. This study includes a look at what courses are offered by undergraduate departments, what courses are required for a biology degree, and what content is covered in the introductory course sequence. Suggestions for an updated curriculum are also provided. Keywords: curriculum, undergraduate majors, reform, biology core

The biological sciences cover a vast array of disciplines, from molecular biology and biochemistry to ecosystems and environmental biology. No biologist can truly know the entire field, and “general” biologists have an increasingly difficult time keeping up with the expanding nature of the biological sciences. In the past 25 years alone, knowledge in the biological arena has mushroomed, particularly in the areas of molecular biology and biotechnology. Various authors (Venter and Cohen 1997,2004, Carey 1998, Brown 2000, Meagher and Futuyma 2001, Kafatos and Eisner 2004) have referred to the 21st century as the “century of biology,” the implication being that this rapid expansion of knowledge will lead the way for science, and for society at large, well into the distant future.

Against this backdrop of expanding knowledge comes the increasingly difficult task of training future biologists. Within a four-year undergraduate curriculum, it is impossible to study all of the vast expanse of science we know as biology, so questions arise: What is most important? What should a 21st-century biologist with a bachelor’s degree know? What skills should he or she have? No standard exists for the biology curriculum (unlike chemistry, nursing, and other disciplines that have accreditation by outside professional agencies). Many administrators and faculty have routinely rejected the idea of accreditation as untenable, which leaves biology faculty without guidance in reviewing their departments and graduates.

Seventeen years ago, Heppner and colleagues (1990) published a survey of biology and zoology department chairs (n = 240) that identified the courses required for undergraduate biology degrees across the country. They found more similarities than differences among departments, and defined a de facto common core as containing courses in genetics, ecology, physiology, and cell biology. In addition, this core included courses in general chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics,

A decade later, Marocco (2000) published the results of a survey of biology department Web sites (n= 104), and suggested a common de facto core of genetics, ecology/evolution, biochemistry, cell biology, and microbiology. General chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, calculus, and statistics were included as core requirements from outside the department. However, some questions were left unanswered by this survey because of difficulties in interpreting information on the Web sites, many of which were most likely out of date or still under construction.

The National Research Council (NRC) recently produced a report entitled Bio 2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists (2003), which took a critical look at the future training of biomedical scientists. The report’s recommendations, while narrowly focused on one thin slice of biology, included coursework on genetics, biochemistry, molecular biology, cell and developmental biology, evolution and ecology, and research. They also suggested that many of the traditional courses need to be reinvented to keep pace with the needs of the 21st century. In a study that grew out of discussion in a task force of the College and University section of the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT), we set about to update Heppner and colleagues’ work for the start of the 21st century.

Survey design

Our survey, developed in winter 2004, requested data from biology departments, including information on the coverage of topics in freshman biology, courses offered in the department, courses required inside and outside the department, and use of Bio 2010 in the department. We provided a list of 33 courses to make answering the questions easier, but also left room to list additional courses. In spring 2004, we mailed the survey to the chairs of 910 departments identified from Peterson’s Directory of College and University Administrators (2002). Follow-up reminders were sent to those who had not returned the survey by the designated due date. Data were entered into an Excel spreadsheet and analyzed using SPSS software.

Survey results

A total of 403 surveys were returned (a 45 percent response rate after subtracting the number of surveys returned as undeliverable or otherwise unusable). Although we addressed the surveys to the biology department chair at each school, only 77 percent of the completed surveys were returned from biology or biological sciences departments. An additional 18 percent were from natural sciences departments (generally in very small schools), 3 percent were from science departments with mixed names (e.g., biology and math), and 2 percent were from other sources (e.g., from colleges of arts and sciences without specific departments).

Courses offered by individual biology departments are shown in figure 1. Courses with slightly different names but similar content are grouped together. The respondents listed more than 120 additional courses, most with quite specific titles and content (e.g., “Ecology of Coastal Maine,””Texas Flora,” and “Immunohematology”).

Surprisingly, although 17 courses are offered by more than 50 percent of the departments surveyed, only one of these courses (genetics) is required by more than 50 percent of the departments, and only three other courses (seminars, ecology, and cell biology) are required by more than 40 percent. Nonbiology courses required for an undergraduate biology degree are shown in figure 2. General chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics are required by the majority of programs; at least 40 percent require calculus and statistics. It is worth noting that one course, biochemistry, appears in both figure 1 and figure 2, because some schools offer it in the biology department and some in the chemistry department. If the data from figures 1 and 2 are combined, the percentage of degree programs that require biochemistry exceeds 26 percent, and biochemistry falls within the top 10 required courses (just behind microbiology).

Some departments indicated that instead of requiring specific courses, they require students to pick courses from a menu of offerings-for example, one course from organismal biology and one course from molecular biology, or one course from animal biology and one course from plant biology. Therefore, the percentage of departments requiring specific course content, as opposed to specific courses by name, is probably higher than the data suggest.

Table 1 compares the percentages reported by Heppner and colleagues in 1990 with those found in this survey. For many courses, the percentage of departments requiring that course appears to have remained stable in this 15-year period, whereas for other courses, percentages have changed significantly. There has been a significant rise in the percentage of departments requiring courses in biochemistry (333 percent increase), research/research methods (163 percent), molecular biology (55 percent), microbiology (33 percent), and seminars (42 percent). (The percentage of departments offering courses in genomics and biotechnology has probably also increased significantly, but there are no data from 1990 on these courses.) Nonbiology courses showing a significant rise include statistics (169 percent) and general chemistry (19 percent). We found significant declines in the percentage of departments requiring some biology courses, including physiology (down 31 percent from 17 years ago) and zoology (down 49 percent); the only nonbiology course showing a significant decline is calculus (down 16 percent).

The course content for freshman biology is shown in figure 3. In general, the coverage of topics is consistent across departments. Of 16 topics listed, 12 were reported to be covered by more than 93 percent of departments, and only plant biology, plant classification, animal biology, and animal classification were covered by fewer than 90 percent of general biology sequences. For 10 of the 16 topics, at least 80 percent of the departments rated coverage as moderate to in depth. Plant classification was the least likely to be covered in depth (13.6 percent, compared with 38.4 percent reporting brief coverage), while cells were the most likely (60.3 percent in-depth coverage, compared with 3.8 percent brief coverage). Only 18 percent of department chairs indicated that they had read Bio 2010, and of those, only 12 percent (2 percent of the total respondents) indicated that changes in their curriculum would take place as a result of this report. Many chairs noted that the focus of Bio 2010 is too narrow to affect their undergraduate curriculum.


In the 17 years since Heppner and colleagues’ study was published, only a few changes appear to have been made in undergraduate biology requirements. Courses in the molecular areas of biology (molecular biology, biochemistry, etc.) are more likely to be offered, and required, than in the past, reflecting the overall trend in funding of biology research, the overall importance of these areas of biology in the 21st century, and the training of younger faculty in these areas. Research and statistics are required in more programs, perhaps again reflecting a change in faculty over this time period and the emphasis on undergraduate research as a teaching tool in the sciences. Several department chairs noted that a course in statistics is now required in place of the calculus course required in the past. This is an interesting trend-one that moves in opposition to the Bio 2010 report from the NRC (2003). However, again we caution that Bh 2010 may not be particularly relevant to most undergraduate biology departments, as it deals with only those students who are preparing for research careers in the biomedical sciences. Most biology departments are preparing students for much wider professional roles, including medicine and other fields of the health sciences where statistics may be more useful than calculus.

Figure 1. Percentage of biology departments requiring each course within the department for undergraduate majors (black bars) or offering it as an elective (white bars), according to a survey of 403 department chairs.

The lack of change in physical science requirements for biology majors most likely reflects the continuing need for students to be well trained in both chemistry and physics if they are to fully understand biology. It probably also reflects the lack of change in medical school admission requirements over the last 17 years ( most medical schools require one year each of general chemistry, organic chemistry, and general physics; the Medical College Admission Test also reflects these subject areas, although the emphasis on organic chemistry has decreased in recent years in favor of more genetics).

An evolution course is required by fewer than one Jn five biology departments, as was the case in 1990 (Marocco [2000] reported that 61 percent of departments required evolution in 2000, but his sample was small and results were difficult to interpret). Considering the foundational role evolution plays in all aspects of biology, and the need for the next generation of biologists to be well versed in evolutionary theory to counter societal and legislative vagaries, it is remarkable that evolution is not a required course in more biology departments. Indeed, Science for All Americans (AAAS 1990), a report aimed at education reform in precollege curricula, explains that evolution is a concept that needs to be understood to interpret fundamental features of the world around us. Where evolution courses are not required, we hope that departments put heavy emphasis on this theory in other required courses, so that all graduating biologists will have a solid grounding in the concept. Although not something that can be quantified with the available data, the comments made by department chairs would appear to support the idea that this is in fact happening-evolution is a strong thread throughout the curriculum, rather than a stand-alone course in most programs; moreover, 82 percent of departments cover evolution to at least a moderate degree in introductory biology courses.

Figure 2. Percentage of biology departments requiring each course outside the department for undergraduate majors, either for a single semester (black bars) or for two or, rarely, three semesters (white bars).

Table 1. Percentage of biology departments requiring each course in the 1990 study by Heppner and colleagues and in the 2005 study described in this article.

The uniformity of freshman biology course content raises an interesting question. Since there is no national standard or accrediting body for biology, what is driving this uniformity? Clearly there is an alignment between course content and textbook content for most of the freshman textbooks on the market. However, although two of us have been involved on several occasions with publishers seeking input on content, it is still unclear whether faculty are driving book content or vice versa.

It is also clear from the freshman course data that faculty are stressing the molecular areas of biology (biochemistry, metabolism, genetics, etc.) more than ecology or plant and animal classification. This makes sense in light of the increase in upper- level courses in biochemistry, molecular genetics, biotechnology, and related fields. The shifting emphasis in 21 st-century biology toward molecular approaches requires more emphasis to be placed on these topics starting in the freshman year so that students will be prepared to tackle the upper-level courses, which themselves are needed to prepare students for graduate programs that are increasingly emphasizing this area of biology.

Figure 3. Freshman biology course content. Bars show the percentage of departments that report covering each major topic only briefly (black bars), moderately (white bars), or in depth (gray bars) in freshman biology courses.

The data presented here should prove useful to departments across the country as they evaluate their programs and look toward continued improvement in the preparation of undergraduate biology majors. Although there appears to be some change in curricula, it is also clear that the cogs of academia turn very slowly. Science for All Americans (AAAS 1990) notes that the living environment and the human organism are major themes of modern biology that need to be centerpieces of educational reform efforts. Hurd (2001), in looking at the future of K-12 biology curricula, also noted that the character of most high school biology courses today is obsolete- that these courses do not match today’s interdisciplinary, human- centered biology (i.e., biotechnology and medicine, new genetics frontiers, etc.).

The same would appear to be true of college biology, at least to judge from the disciplinary titles attached to the courses. It is our hope, however, that although many course names have remained the same, their content has changed to reflect the directions of biology today. For instance, both the 1990 survey and the present one indicate that genetics is the course most often required for undergraduate biology majors. The content of undergraduate genetics, however, has changed quite dramatically during this time, and this change is reflected in the textbooks used by most undergraduate faculty in the area; molecular genetics is now the focal point, with an emphasis on the Human Genome Project and other 2 Ist-century advances, rather than transmission genetics and population genetics, as in the past. Biochemistry and molecular biology, which are a growing focus of biology research, have also changed dramatically over the last decade and a half. Are other undergraduate courses in biology likewise changing, or have they remained mostly intact in spite of the changes within the field?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics ( BLS 2006), the jobs with the greatest growth potential in the next decade are in medicine and in the fields of biotechnology, molecular biology, and biochemistry. Are we, with our present curricula, preparing students for the jobs that will actually be available in the future? Should we, as biology educators, be more proactive in watching trends in the labor market and altering our curricula to accommodate those trends? Do students of the 21st century need more general skills (breadth of knowledge) or more special skills (depth of knowledge) to compete effectively in the global workforce? There is clearly a tug-of-war at the undergraduate level between the concepts of liberal arts and professional preparation. What is the role of a biology department in preparing its students for the marketplace? How does one prepare for a career and simultaneously for being a world citizen?

The Bio 2010 report (NRC 2003), although limited in scope, argues strongly for additional changes in curricular structure that begin to break down the old compartment walls in biology as well as in math and physical sciences. The report also argues for more interdisciplinary courses and experiences at the undergraduate level. This is a big step that individual departments will have to consider carefially. Kennedy and Gentile (2003) offer an interesting look at how departments might be able to use this information, even in the absence of a recognized curricular standard. Although a relatively small number of department chairs indicated that they had read Bio 2010, it is likely that more departments will read and make use of its information and concepts as time goes on.

Table 2. Comparison of current de facto core curriculum (last column) with core curricula suggested by previous authors.

To begin the process of moving toward curricular reform and possibly toward a recognized standard for biology curricula, we suggest that, as a starting point, a framework for 21 st-century biology instruction emerges from trends noted in this survey. This curricular core (table 2) includes genetics, biochemistry and molecular biology, cell biology, microbiology, ecology, research or research methods, and seminars. This recommendation is similar to that made by Heppner and colleagues (1990), with the addition of undergraduate research, which many authors and organizations (such as the Council on Undergraduate Research) have championed in the past 10 years, and biochemistry/molecular biology, an area of biology that has grown tremendously in importance since 1990. This list also correlates well with suggestions from the NRC (2003), with the addition of microbiology, a more traditional area but one that has reemerged in importance in 21st-century medicine and public health. Our survey results indicate a lag in implementation of other authors’ suggestions, including those of the NRC, but that should not deter a renewed call for biology instruction that responds to society’s and students’ needs in the 21st century. We recommend that the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS), NABT, and perhaps other national organizations take a serious look at curricular issues in biology. It has been suggested for several years within the College and University Section of NABT that the biology education community should move toward a unified standard and certification of departments and programs, much as the American Chemical Society does for chemistry departments. However, many of our colleagues have noted that the biological sciences are much broader than chemistry, and the career choices of those with a biology degree are also much more numerous. Because of the widely divergent career choices in the biological sciences, many departments have opted to take up special niches (e.g., preparing premedkal students, preparing wildlife biologists) even while attempting to remain a general biology department. Some of this has to do with the training of faculty within the department, with the special resources available to the department, or perhaps with the marketing of the college in general. Other factors that push such decisions include oversight of the curriculum or input into it by broader organizations ( such as systemwide curriculum committees, state education boards, regional accrediting bodies, or medical school admissions committees) and the college or university’s reluctance to make major curricular changes. All of this makes the creation of either a national standard or a certification complicated, if not impossible. Nevertheless, NABT, AIBS, and other organizations might find it useful to look carefully at the possibility.

Having said that, not all of the authors of this article are in favor of a national standard. Perhaps it is time to recognize that “biologist” may not be the best title for a new college graduate- that a specialty title might be a better indicator of what a 21st- century biologist is really prepared to do. A smaller core in biology, followed by “tracks” or “concentrations” of specialization (such as biochemistry and molecular biology, environmental biology, or wildlife biology), is another model that some departments have implemented over the years. Would this better serve the graduate programs and employers of the 21st century? Might it be easier than trying to implement a unified curriculum across the nation? Has biology grown too big to have a unified curriculum? Do we even need general biologists? Can one really prepare to be a generalist in a field that has grown so dramatically in the past 25 years, and will most likely continue to expand exponentially into the foreseeable future?

Regardless of which organizations take up the challenge, a survey like this one should be repeated every few years; conducting the survey online would make data analysis easier and faster. This will allow biology departments to have some sense of how they stack up to the de facto standardseven if this is a shifting target-and give departments the data they need to push for curricular reform within their own institutions. It will also give employers and graduate schools a better sense of what it means to be a biology graduate.


This research was supported by a Gerhold Research Fund grant from Capital University to K. C.

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Include this information when citing this material.

Kerry Cheesman (e-mail: [email protected]) is a professor, Nancy Swails and Jerry Thomas are associate professors, and Ian Cheesman is a former science education student and a research assistant in the Biological Sciences Department, Capital University, Columbus, OH 43209. Donald French is a profesior in the Zoology Department at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK 47078, (c) 2007 American Institute of Biological Sciences.

Copyright American Institute of Biological Sciences Jun 2007

(c) 2007 Bioscience. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.