Fall 2014 Newsletter | Biology | Marquette University



A New Way of Teaching

The Biology Department Revamps their Curriculum

NotebooksEducators have debated long and hard over the best way to impart knowledge to students. In 1960 the historically separate botany and zoology programs were integrated. In 1963, a “core curriculum” was developed for biology majors, requiring students to take Biology 1 and 2, Genetics, Cell Biology, General Ecology, and Developmental Biology. The search for the “perfect” curriculum is a never ending quest, but the Marquette Biology Department was ready to try something innovative by the late 1960’s.


A departmental sub-committee was formed in October, 1966 to undertake a study of the core curriculum with a view of upgrading it even further. A major component of this curriculum review was to explore the role of undergraduate laboratory courses. Lab courses provide opportunities for close student-teacher interaction in problem solving situations. The department hoped to utilize this to provide their students with a more sophisticated understanding and appreciation of science as a research-dependent intellectual activity. 


In the fall of 1969 the department implemented a completely revised undergraduate curriculum with a number of goals in mind. The most important role of any science curriculum is to develop a clear appreciation of the interplay between intellectual inquiry and experimental investigation. Next, the curriculum should present the central themes and problems of biology in a logical sequence, along with shedding light on where future innovation will be in the biological sciences. At its foundation, biology is reliant on math, physics, and chemistry. Therefore this curriculum should provide substantial training in these areas. It should also provide significant opportunities for expression of individual interests, and for independent, unstructured study. Finally, this curriculum should allow for a less formal student-professor interaction than was typically possible with traditional lecture courses.


Dr. Rasch and student at microscopeTechnically, this new curriculum was implemented by redesigning existing courses, separating lecture courses from labs, dropping four courses, and adding three new ones, resulting in 21 courses in the new program (vs. 20 in the old).


The real innovation was the new approach to lab experience. One of the major goals for this endeavor was the pursuit of a better approach to train students in critical inquiry. Traditionally, course offerings were structured around a formal lecture-laboratory arrangement; with labs used to either illustrate principles previously introduced in lectures, or to teach specific techniques. In order to cover the required content under the time constraints, lab work had become so formalized that it often devolved to “cookbook” structured exercises rather than practicing intellectual skills.


The committee’s solution was to separate the instructional program into two parallel components: 1) Class room lecture courses designed to present the fundamental concepts of contemporary biology; 2) A separate core laboratory program developed to explore the rationale and methods of the investigative process, and to develop the creative and critical abilities of each student.


This investigative style lab, presented as a stand-alone course was unique to the Marquette Biology Department… and students loved it:


The new curriculum also further refined the core approach. All biology majors were to takea series of courses which were designed to provide an introduction to the central themes of modern biology, and would be applicable for various career areas. The courses were designed as a continuum, instead of the earlier essentially independent courses. The program required students to follow a fairly specific course pattern during their freshman and sophomore years. To compensate for this initial rigidity, the final semesters were designed to provide a relatively high degree of course selection in electives.


LectureThe department of biological sciences still utilizes the basic components of this curriculum, with its stand-alone lab courses and core sequence of lecture courses. The Undergraduate Committee has begun working on possible revisions to this curriculum to bring it more in line with the advancements  that have occurred in science over these past decades, and consistent with “Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education”  - recommendations developed for undergraduate training by NSF, AAAS, HHMI and the USDA.  The proposal includes five core concepts for Biological literacy (Evolution; Structure and Function; Information flow, exchange, and storage; Pathways and transformations of energy and matter; and Systems) as well as six core competencies (Ability to apply the process of science; Ability to use quantitative reasoning; ability to use modeling andsimulation; Ability to tap into the interdisciplinary nature of science; Ability to communicate and collaborate with other disciplines; and Ability to understand the relationship between science and society). The curriculum aims to be progressive with courses at three levels (introduction, reinforcement and mastery) with research lab experiences following a similar progression and beginning in the freshman year. Internships for our majors is also a proposed goal for the program. Outcomes for individual courses and for the majors, as well as assessment at multiple levels will be used to evaluate the program and drive future revisions. 


Image credits: Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Marquette University Libraries




Biological Sciences Department

Marquette University, Wehr Life Sciences
(Directions/campus map)
P.O. Box 1881
Milwaukee, WI 53201-1881
(414) 288-7355