Biology Students Struggling with Math

Regardless of our current role in academe, education—for us and for our students—is central to our identity as scientists.
With that in mind, the ASCB Education Committee (EdComm) is pleased to offer Office Hours with EdComm, a column addressing broad issues in education, ranging from career choice to curriculum development to incorporating technology into your lectures. EdComm Members and Associates look forward to answering your questions; please direct them to DearEdComm@ascb.org

Dear EdComm,
I recently completed teaching a course in cell biology and was devastated to see my students struggle with math. Probabilities, proportions, metric system, extracting meaning from graphs, you name it—everything math-related caused problems. Our campus has a math tutoring center, but many science students do not find it especially useful. Math literacy keeps coming up in discussions between Biology, Chemistry, and Mathematics faculty, but we frequently end up pointing fingers, assigning blame, and demanding that other courses “fix” the problems. Is this issue specific to our university? What can I do to help my students? Help!
—Tired and Desperate

Dear Tired and Desperate,
Your students are not unique in their lack of math skills. Many adults with different levels of education in the United States lack the quantitative skills they need. Based on the data from the National Center for Education Statistics (e.g., https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2014/2014008.pdf), U.S. adults fall behind citizens of many developed countries in quantitative and problem-solving skills. Many students select biology as their major thinking (wrongly) that they will be able to avoid math on their career path. Biology students lack mathematical and computational skills necessary for data analysis and perceive math as irrelevant to their field.1 This problem is well recognized by the biology education community, and a concerted effort to infuse computational and mathematical training into biology courses will likely help in developing more opportunities for students to improve these skills.2,3

One of the approaches to help your students is to include quantitative reasoning in all science courses, starting with introductory chemistry and biology. National Numeracy Network, “an organization that offers its members a network of individuals, institutions, and corporations united by the common goal of quantitative literacy for all citizens,” has developed a variety of pedagogical resources and approaches that you could integrate into your courses (http://serc.carleton.edu/nnn/index.html). The journal Numeracy is dedicated to publishing examples of successful implementation of quantitative reasoning resources across programs and courses (http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/numeracy). The data show that consistent and deliberate integration of biology and quantitative reasoning changes students’ perception of math and leads to an increase in mathematics and numeracy skills (e.g., reference 4).

You are not alone in this endeavor. Your students’ struggles with math concepts are not unique. Start small, think about the ways you can modify your course to infuse it with consistent and deliberate exercises that can help students relate math and biology, and you will be happy to see your students do better. Your success may be a great point to make in your discussions with other faculty, maybe even changing your conversations from pointing fingers to constructive dialogues leading to larger cultural changes in your university.

—Irina Makarevitch (EdComm member), Hamline University

References
1Zan R, Brown L, Evans J, Hannula MS (2006). Affect in mathematics education: an introduction. Educ Stud Math 63, 113–121.
2Feser J, Vasaly H, Herrera J (2013). On the edge of mathematics and biology integration: improving quantitative skills in undergraduate
biology education. CBE Life Sci Educ 12, 124–128.
3Hester S, Buxner S, Elfring L, Nagy L (2014). Integrating quantitative thinking into an introductory biology course improves students’ mathematical reasoning in biological contexts. CBE Life Sci Educ 13, 54–64.
4Speth EB, Momsen JL, Moyerbrailean GA, Ebert-May D, Long TM, Wyse S, Linton D (2010). Infusing Quantitative Literacy into Introductory Biology. CBE Life Sci Educ 9, 323–332.

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