The Ideal Biology Graduate

Bill Purves purves at
Sat Nov 19 14:12:00 EST 1994

In article <3aj885$91l at>,
Steve Scadding <scadding at> wrote:
>I am currently involved in a process of curriculum review in this 
>department.  Instead of focusing on programs and courses as we have done 
>in the past, we are trying to develop a vision of what our objectives are 
>in offering a four year university program in Biology.

I applaud this approach, and I urge you to be as open and daring as
you can.  I'll preface my comments by pointing out that I chair a
small biology department that graduated its first seniors in 1993.
We are at Harvey Mudd College, a very selective and small college
of science and engineering that has been around for for almost forty
years.  Until recently the college offered only the following majors:
chemistry, engineering, mathematics, and physics.  Biology is very
new and computer science another year or two newer.  There are six
biology faculty members, and we are averaging about 13 bio majors per
class (the student body at the college is a bit over 600, so we are
not the smallest major).

>In particular, we 
>are trying to develop a picture of what our ideal graduating student 
>would look like.  What knowledge would they possess?

This is NOT a major point.  I would argue that there are very few
specific pieces of knowledge they require.

>What skills would they possess?

The skills that enable them to learn new things.  There are probably
next to no specific lab skills that need to be enshrined as _sine qua

>What sorts of things would we expect them to be able to 
>do?  What sorts of experiences should they have had? etc., etc., etc.
>We then hope to develop a curriculum which will bring about this desired 

They should be able to learn new things as biology changes and as
their careers require.  A research experience is probably key to the
whole venture.

I suggest that you spend less time developing a curriculum than you
spend on considering HOW you will teach and HOW your students will

Things we have concentrated on include such things as a meaningfully
writing-intensive curriculum.  Our introductory lab course (one
semester) is based on four units, each culminating in a formal,
journal-style paper.  Students use the little book by Pechenik as
a guide to their writing; they must submit a first draft to our
college's student-staffed Writing Center; final drafts go to the
faculty, who spend "quality time" on grading them AND on helping them
do better the next time.  All our upper-division courses have
significant writing requirements.  Each year, a junior major is
selected by her/his peers and the faculty to be the next year's
Biology Writing Fellow.  This is an honored position.  That Fellow
works with students in our "junior laboratory," a lab course required
of junior majors.

Each of the six faculty is committed to constant examination of
issues of learning and teaching, and we talk with one another to
compare notes.  One benefit of this is that we can copy things that
others have found particularly effective; another is that we can
avoid all doing the same thing.  We try to give the students a
variety of learning experiences.  These include a lot of use of
primary literature, a lot of in-class discussion of the literature,
opportunities (for the students) to lecture, a lot of work in small
teams (2-3 students), and a non-trivial exposure to courses in which
students determine what is to be studied and how.

Thus far we have required our majors to take four courses (past the
introductory semester) in common: Structure and Function (mostly but
not entirely an animal physiology course), Evolution and Ecology,
Cell and Molecular Biology, and Neurobiology.  Having reviewed many
things at a departmental retreat last month, we are switching to
a different array of four requirements:  Ecology and Environmental
Biology, Molecular Biology, Evolutionary Biology, and Structure and
Function.  NOTE that we have NEVER concerned ourselves with details
of course content in these or our other courses.  I strongly believe
that instructors should develop their own courses based on what they
can do best; there is nothing so important that a course cannot change
fairly dramatically from one instructor's offering to the next.
All we have concerned ourselves with is a general sense of what BROAD
categories of things a Harvey Mudd-trained biologist should know.
(Context: all our students take four semesters of math beyond
beginning calculus; physics through E&M and E&M lab (three semesters
in all); chem through organic; a course in Systems Engineering;
a course in structured programming.)

I realize that we enjoy a great luxury in having the very smart
students we do and in their having a broad technical background.
But the point here is what biology they should have.  I think what
I have described above makes sense and that it works.  We wondered
what such a loosely defined curriculum and courses would produce in
the way of GRE scores.  Well... we just got back our seniors' scores
on the biology subject part of the GRE.  The LOWEST percentile
score on the general for biology was 88--for a student with a GPA
well below 3.0.  The scores included 99, 98, 97, 95... out of fewer
than 10 students.  The students are smart, but they must have managed
to pick up a fair range of biology, too...

Oh... we also require six units of senior research of all majors
(there is another option, called Clinic, which is another subject
in itself).

>How would you describe the ideal graduate of a four year biology program?
>Any thoughts or ideas would be appreciated?

Aware (and tolerant) of the diversity of areas that make up today's
biology.  Equipped to learn material in ANY area.  Able to communicate
her/his findings (and questions) to others, orally or in writing.
Experienced in learning by doing laboratory or field research.
Experienced in learning by using the library and on-line resources.
Able to make use of at least some mathematics and physical sciences.
Not one-dimensional... should have an appreciation for the humanities
and social sciences.

Sorry to have been so verbose, but this topic is of great interest and
importance to me.


William K. Purves
Department of Biology
Harvey Mudd College
Claremont, CA 91711
Bill_Purves at

More information about the Bioforum mailing list