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New curriculum builds better biologists

CMU majors are streamlined, but offer more opportunities than ever

Contact: Heather Smith

​A revised biology curriculum at Central Michigan University appears to be paying off in a big way.

The plan, introduced last fall, has streamlined the course offerings while providing a wider learning base that builds on itself. The new curriculum also allows for more hands-on research and makes graduates more marketable to employers.

Although starting its second autumn, the curriculum was conceived, discussed and shaped over a few years, said Tracy Galarowicz, who chairs the biology department. The entire department was involved.

The goal? To modernize the way biology is taught at CMU.

For starters, there no longer is an introductory biology class. No intro zoology or botany courses either. But biology majors aren't missing a thing; by the time they graduate they have it all.

"Before, they started out with an intro bio class and then they moved on," Galarowicz said, "but there were all these different routes that they could take through the major.

"Now the first two years are a sequence of courses that build on one another as they move through from first semester freshman year to the fourth semester."

Under the former curriculum, seniors still could take that 200-level class they never got around to. Not anymore: Those courses have to be taken before the junior year.

Plenty of input

For ideas, the department surveyed biology alums on the curriculum they followed and how it could be improved. Professional and graduate schools were mined for information.

"We surveyed institutions similar to us, what were they doing?" Galarowicz said.

Sciences complementary to biology were discussed. How much chemistry do the students need to know? How much physics? How much math?

Then there was the more abstract learning: communication skills, quantitative skills, interpretation, hypothesis development.

Employers, asked about the qualities they'd like to see in a biology graduate, had a lot to say about those things.

"We want them to know the science," Galorowicz said, paraphrasing the employers, "but they have to communicate to others, and make others understand what they are doing.

"That's what drove all of it."

The changes come

The majors were cut from six to four:

  • Biology major with a concentration in secondary education

"Our expectations varied with each major," Galarowicz said. "Now, for the first two years every biology student takes the same five biology classes, and they take the same chemistry. They take physics and they have the same math requirement.

It gives them some flexibility, so if they take their ecology class and decide they want to be an ecologist and not a medical doctor, they've got that same background."

Students who began their coursework before the 2016-17 academic year will follow the former curriculum, making adjustments as new classes are introduced and others are phased out.

Allowances have been made for non-biology majors who need to take that one general biology course. They're urged to craft a plan with their advisors.

A solid foundation

The new curriculum also allows for more undergraduate research, a priority at CMU.

"The new curriculumBiology embedded2.jpg incorporates research into the laboratories from hypothesis development to experimental design to data collection and statistical analyses," Galorowicz said.

"Students will be exposed to all areas of biology and encouraged to pursue the areas that they are most passionate about through undergraduate research." 

Kevin Pangle, an associate biology professor, likes they way each course is reinforced by one that follows it.

"I think the new curriculum also addresses some of the growing demands on students," Pangle said. "There's more of an emphasis on quantitative skills. More of an emphasis on communication."

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