Should We Teach for Biology Content, Science Skills, or Both?

I was fortunate to attend the Introductory Biology Project summer conference in Washington, DC in July 2012. Participants were given the opportunity to complete the following statement on a shared document: “At the end of the ideal course [in introductory biology], students will be able to …” The 46 instructors who contributed to the document each listed from four to ten core course objectives, and the document makes interesting reading.

Browsing through the lists of objectives at the time, I was struck by the strong emphasis on science skills and the under-representation of what I would consider to be core content. But I didn’t think much more about it until this month, when my husband and fellow attendee Doug Gaffin took the time to categorize each of the 256 objectives on the list. This graph shows what he found:

Of course I agree that students completing an introductory biology course should understand and be able to apply the logic and basic tools of science. But isn’t basic knowledge of DNA, evolution, and other biological processes an equally important course outcome? To paraphrase Doug’s comments, Chuck [Darwin] and Greg [Mendel] must be spinning in their graves!
competencies_graph_2

For the record, here is what I posted on the shared document (I didn’t include science skills in my list, because they were so well-represented already):

  1. Differentiate among the scales of life, from atoms to ecosystems.
  2. Understand that all types of life are made of the same basic types of inorganic and organic substances.
  3. Understand the connections among the processes occurring inside cells.
  4. Explain how DNA encodes proteins and predict what happens when DNA sequences change.
  5. Show how DNA passes from generation to generation in asexual and sexual reproduction.
  6. Connect an understanding of DNA’s function with genotypes and phenotypes.
  7. Understand how variation leads to unequal reproductive success, natural selection, and evolution.
  8. Describe the broad categories of life’s diversity and their evolutionary relationships.
  9. Trace energy and matter through ecosystems.
  10. Predict the consequences of changes in ecosystems.

But I want to know what you think. How do you weight the importance of science skills vs. core content? What are your goals for your course?

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One Response to Should We Teach for Biology Content, Science Skills, or Both?

  1. Laurie Key says:

    I have to agree. I think non-biology majors should have those basic core contents down.

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