Sunday, May 31

Life sciences curricula to be reformed

The department hopes to make requirements more interdisciplinary, in line with modern biology

The UCLA life sciences division is in the midst of reforming its curricula as part of an attempt to make undergraduate requirements for life sciences students more relevant to their field of study.

Starting next quarter, the life sciences division in the College of Letters and Science will start to integrate math and biology with the experimental math series Life Sciences 30A-B, which will use biological examples to teach mathematics.

The change was sparked by a series of reports commissioned by the National Academies and the Association of American Medical Colleges/Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The reports – released in 2003 and 2009, respectively – stated that chemistry and physics courses are not very well-integrated with modern biology.

Some of the reports emphasized the importance of offering algebra and statistics instead of traditional calculus courses, said Blaire Van Valkenburgh, the associate dean for academic programs of life sciences.

Van Valkenburgh said a year of traditional calculus is not thought to be enough anymore for life sciences students because biology has become increasingly interdisciplinary.

She said she thinks there needs to be more collaboration between physics, chemistry and math.

Students pursuing life science majors are currently required to take the Math 3 series, which focuses predominantly on calculus.

The current requirements in the biology major prepare students with a pre-medical curriculum even if they do not want to become doctors, Van Valkenburgh said.

For students who do not want to go to medical school, the life sciences department is looking to possibly decrease the number of pre-medical requisite courses and increase the number of classes that students are interested in, she said.

Several students, like Liliana Kroll, a third-year human biology and society student, said some of the life sciences requirements are more applicable for aspiring chemists or physicists than life science students.

While Kroll said the current courses are relevant to her desired field in public health, she thinks a broader range of classes would provide life sciences students with more applicable skills.

The ideas for the changes in the life sciences requirements came after several recent reports about biology, mathematics and pre-medical curricula, Van Valkenburgh said.

UCLA is not alone in its efforts to rethink its life sciences curriculum. UC Berkeley offers Math 10A, a math class about mathematical methods designed specifically for biology students, said Steven Martin, dean of biological sciences and a professor of cell and developmental biology at UC Berkeley.

“We feel it is much better suited for biologists who need not just calculus but also need probability and statistics,” Martin said.

Other departments across the UCLA campus have already been trying to adapt to the needs of students in the life sciences over the years.

James Rosenzweig, chair of the physics and astronomy department, said the Physics 6 series, which is now tailored for life science students, has undergone many changes throughout the past 15 years. The biophysics department integrates life sciences material into its curriculum, he added.

Rosenzweig said the physics department is not currently making any new changes, but is open to continued discussion with the life sciences division about curriculum alterations.

Some departments, however, have concerns about the possible changes to the life sciences requirements.

Dimitri Shlyakhtenko, chair of the mathematics department, said he was concerned that the new Life Science 30 math series might weaken mathematics preparation for students.

Still, the department is supportive of the life sciences reform, he added. He said the math department is determining how to modify existing mathematics to better accommodate student needs.

Van Valkenburgh said she acknowledges concerns that students will not receive all the necessary information to be competent in their respective fields.

The life sciences division and collaborative departments are currently negotiating and will continue to discuss altering life sciences requirements to create a more relevant curriculum for students, Van Valkenburgh said.

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