Removing Botany from Core Curriculum

Catharina Coenen ccoenen at
Mon May 14 10:38:18 EST 2001


In response to Jon's question on other's experiences with teaching a more 
integrative biology core sequence:

Allegheny College restructured its introductory biology sequence in the way 
you describe two years ago.  We now teach two "theme-based" introductory 
lecture courses: "Organismal Physiology & Ecology", which is organized 
around four themes (energy, water, reproduction, defense), and "Genetics, 
Development & Evolution", which has "genes" as its central theme.  Both 
courses are team-taught (120 students & 3 instructors) and have smaller 
recitation sections associated with them (20 students), but no labs.  The 
third introductory course "Investigative Approaches in Biology" is purely 
lab-based and emphasizes writing, speaking, and science as a process.  This 
course is also team-taught by three instructors:  groups of 20 students 
rotate through three modules (ecology, physiology, and cell/molecular biology).

After two years we can say that the investigative lab course is a great 
success, the "Genetics" course seems to work well, and the 
"Physiology/Ecology" course (which is the only place where plants are 
formally covered) is struggling.

Reasons for the struggles in this latter course are that (1) it is 
overburdened with content material, (2) students see the format of the 
course (discussing themes as they relate to multiple organisms) as 
disjointed (in part because there is no textbook on the market that 
supports this approach), and (3) our mostly pre-med student population 
continues to "hate plants".  As the only plant biologist at Allegheny, I 
take turns with our only microbiologist in teaching the plant and microbe 
parts of the course.  Both of us feel that most students continually 
measure our material against the "more useful" animal information (which 
will appear on the MCATs), and that this does nothing to improve student 
attitude towards plants.

I wonder if our problem is that we still continue to separate organisms 
from each other -- except that we are now doing it "by instructor" instead 
of "by course" as in the traditional approach.  I believe that this 
approach can work and that it is in fact a much more exciting and fun way 
to teach biology, but that it requires more than any of us have been 
trained for:  We may have to _become_ "Integrative Biologists" first (and 
perhaps even write a textbook accordingly) before we can expect our 
students to follow us comfortably down that path.  I think it can be done 
successfully, but that it requires a faculty who is willing to grow 
together as a team and throw out a lot of old lecture notes, rather than 
trying to force old materials into a new format.

On a happier note, anyone interested in our investigative lab course is 
welcome to visit the website for the "Cell/Molecular Biology Module" that I 
teach on plant peroxidases 
The site has the general class syllabus as well as protocols for my 
particular lab, other supporting material, and links to related 
sites.  Student evaluations of this module have been extremely positive 
throughout.  (About 10% of these very positive evaluations continue to end 
in "but I still hate plants" -- It seems that I'm going to have to live 
with this fraction of students just as they will have to live with me.).


Dr. Catharina Coenen
Biology Department			phone: (814) 332-2703
Allegheny College			FAX:	(814) 332-2789
Meadville, PA 16335			e-mail: ccoenen at
Spring '01 Office Hours:                   M 10-11 am , W 10-11 am & 2-4 
pm, Fr 10-12 noon


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