BSCD revamps Core Bio requirement for fourth time

By Jen Glickel

The organization of the Core Biology requirement has been changed for the 2004-2005 school year, making this the fourth change to the program in five years, and is receiving mixed reactions from students.

José Quintans, Master of the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division (BSCD), said the BSCD upgrades its curricular offerings regularly in an effort to keep up with the expansion of biological knowledge and the growing interest of our students in our courses.

Core Bio was altered in 1999 to comply with the broader changes to the University’s Common Core curriculum, which had been mostly intact since the 1930s. Administration officials wanted to reduce the number of required courses in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences from 21 to 15. The administration also wanted to remove a longstanding foreign language requirement.

With the 1999 overhaul of the Common Core, the life sciences requirement was reduced from three to two courses, forcing the BSCD to reevaluate the Core Biology requirement. Unlike other departments, it continues to tinker with the curriculum.

But Quintans said the changes to the Core Biology program are to continue. “As before, we shall assess carefully the educational value of these changes and make the appropriate modifications for 2005,” he said.

In 1999 the BSCD created a two-course track. The first was a general biology class— now familiarly known as “Core Bio”—and a set of topical courses. No textbooks were used, paper-writing was emphasized, and TA-led discussion groups were added to the course in the spirit of the new Core. By 2002, problems surfaced with this because some students were better prepared for Core Bio than others, said biology professor Thomas Christianson. The BSCD changed the requirement to serve different students by offering a “Depth” version, which focused on specific biological areas, and a “Breadth” version, geared to the student with little to no knowledge of biology.

Students were not permitted to choose which class they took, but, rather, placement was determined by a “Diagnostic Qualifying Pretest” given on the first day of classes, which filtered students into either Depth or Breadth by the next day. A change was made to the testing system in 2003 to avoid the tremendous amount of grading and loss of a class day, and students were then given the test before the first day of classes.

“We always solicit student input, and survey the class at the end with the BSCD course evaluation form,” Christianson said. “Student opinions about all aspects of Core Bio have been very diverse, which of course is not surprising.”

Based on such surveys, the BSCD realized that the testing system removed the element of choice that students were traditionally given when registering for their Core classes, and, once again, it decided to change the organization of the requirement for this school year.

This year, the pretest has been eliminated and replaced with an online diagnostic exam incoming first-years are asked to take over the summer. A student’s performance on this exam no longer directly corresponds with placement in a section of bio. Yet according to Professor Christianson, “some students who did really well were placed out of Biological Issues and Paradigms.”

Class organization has also changed. Students are once again allowed to choose their bio class, selecting from a variety of themes, each emphasizing a unique biological aspect, as well as a comprehensive class that does not have a specific focus.

Student opinions on the subject vary. Second-year Katherine Mancera, who took the “Breadth” section of Core Bio last year, supports the changes that have been made to this year’s program. “I would have much rather been able to choose which bio class interested me most and taken that one, as opposed to being placed in a class based on my performance on the pre-test,” she said.

First-year student in Core Bio, Adam Brunk, said that the purpose of the new pre-test was unclear. “If I had known that I could have placed out of Core Bio from the online test, I would have studied for it,” he said. “The description made it seem as though it was only to see where each student stood in terms of biology knowledge, and that it would have no effect on my requirement.”

To reflect the newly themed classes, the course was renamed “Biological Issues and Paradigms.” Also, several of the new bio sections will be using a textbook, which was custom-made for the University of Chicago, entitled Biology: Concepts and Connections by Campbell, Reece, Mitchell, and Taylor.