Infusing More Math into the Biology Classroom

Oct. 10, 2016

Undergraduate educators agree that math skills are important for biology students. For success, students need to be able to accurately perform cell counts, serial dilutions, estimations, data analysis, and modeling, among other things. Yet many students who are committed to becoming biologists find the mathematics necessary for completing their undergraduate degree to be a barrier. One solution to this problem is to infuse more math into the biology classroom, rather than keeping those subjects separate. Still, biology faculty don’t always know how best to introduce and scaffold quantitative concepts in their courses in a way that is approachable for their students. As Dr. Kären Nelson from Prince George’s Community College said during the first session of ASM M(icro)OOCs: Improving Microbiology Students’ Quantitative Skills, “There is a lot of power even in very simple math. But that doesn’t make the very simple math easy to integrate.”

One solution, presented by Dr. Nelson, is MathBench. These freely available, peer-reviewed, NSF-funded modules introduce core math skills and concepts to introductory biology students in an engaging way. Core skills and concepts covered over the 40 modules include learning to distill mathematical structure from biological reality, manipulating and interpreting equations and graphs, and understanding rates of change and equilibrium. Modules range from basics like measurement and probability to subdiscipline-specific skills in microbiology, cellular processes, environmental science, and others. Students are guided through activities that check their background knowledge and are introduced to new techniques, like reading micropipettes.

Dr. Nelson and her co-developers of MathBench recommend that the focus on these core skills and concepts start early in undergraduate students’ careers; the modules were developed for freshmen and sophomores. This way, students have developed mathematical literacy by the time they reach more in-depth mathematical approaches in upper-division courses.

Author: Bethany Adamec

Bethany Adamec
Bethany Adamec is a Science Education Specialist at ASM, where she communicates about ASM’s work in student and faculty professional development, supports the ASM Education Board, and works with colleagues to promote evidence-based education reform.