Thursday, January 24, 2013

How and what to teach in undergraduate genetics

Here at Michigan State University, we are considering how to "fix" the primary undergraduate Genetics class. Why does it need to be fixed? Many reasons. For instance it has for many years been taught with little "institutional memory" from semester to semester. So what concepts are covered (and how) may depend heavily on when the students have taken it. This class is taught each semester (fall, spring and summer) with enrollments exceeding 300 students, and is required for practically every life sciences undergraduate major across many departments and colleges at the University. Indeed in my college alone (Natural Sciences) ~75% of the 4800 UGs in the college are in biological disciplines. Thus there is an extremely wide diversity of backgrounds, in particular with respect to basic quantitative skills. It is also generally a poorly regarded course from the perspective of students, and is  seemingly considered a "weeder" course where the hopes of many pre-med students are crushed (the course currently does not require calculas or physics as a pre-requisites, which at least when I was an UG, represented the sieve courses).

While we are just at the beginning of this process (and we are just  starting to collect information ) I already have a number of questions that I am trying to make sense of, and I would really appreciate feedback from everyone, especially people who have already been involved with a similar process at other schools

I will probably write about all of these questions (and what I am thinking on each one) in the future, but for now I will just get them down.

So my questions for the moment (let me know if you have any others I should be thinking about.

What sorts of background/ pre-requisites are reasonable for a "fundamentals of genetics"? Just 1st year biology? chemistry? physics? calculus? stats?

There has been a lot of recent discussion on the concepts (and the order that they should be taught), most notably the recent paper by Rosemary Redfield, as well as her blog about teaching genetics. This has also generated a lot of useful discussion (here and here for example).  I have reviewed several proposals for genetics textbooks, so many other organizing principles are also being used. Once I have organized my own thoughts I will write my own thoughts on this.  I am curious what has worked (or has not worked) as well. Thoughts?

Who is the target audience for a genetics course? Unlike introductory level courses (biology, physics, calculus) genetics is often taught as a second or third year course (here at MSU it is a 300 level course). Usually such more fundamental disciplinary courses are being taught from a disciplinary perspective. However, the audience for Genetics seems far broader. In particular many students hoping to be involved in medical sciences.  To whom do we teach? Those fundamentally interested in biology in general, or genetics in particular? Or to the much broader audience who include many who have no desire to be in the class (but have to to fulfill their degree while trying to get into medical school)? Is there a happy medium? Are two different classes (one for each audience) a better idea?


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