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A Little More Math in Your Biology

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The study of biology will increasingly require skill in math, or “a toolbox of diverse mathematical approaches,” according to a new article published in the journal Science. I don't know if biologists tend to fear and avoid math to the extent that much of the general population does, but the changing nature of their scientific field makes math knowledge more essential than ever, the authors argue.


The need for math training is becoming more crucial in areas such as systems biology, where math models have been successful in helping scientists understand molecular structure, they say. Moreover, algebraic models have become increasingly useful in the study of evolutionary biology, such as in examinations of RNA.

The paper, "Mathematical Biology Education: Beyond Calculus," published by Raina Robeva of Sweet Briar College, in Virginia, and Reinhard Laubenbacher of the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech, requires a subscription, but here’s a summary of it. If this topic interests you, so might a second paper: “Computing Has Changed Biology—Biology Education Must Catch Up,” which is published in the same issue.

“Algebraic models should be considered critical for the professional development of biologists,” Robeva and Laubenbacher say. “Mathematics and biology educators must work together to determine the best way of including these in undergraduate curricula.”

What implications does the idea of mathematizing biology have for high school science, and the way that biology courses and math courses are taught?

Photo by Michael P. Farrell for Education Week

1 Comment

Amen! When I tell my students that they need to bring a calculator to class everyday, they balk. 'This isn't math class.' I let them know that Biology is really a math class, and a reading and writing class. It just happens to be oriented around a theme...life.
The next step? Get the math curriculum aligned up with the science curriculum. Coordinators should be looking to see what kinds of math science teachers need the students to possess walking in. For example, teaching genetics requires a significant mastery of probability, yet often they haven't had it prior to enrolling in biology.
The other issue is that there needs to be coordination in how certain math principals are taught. Often students struggle in biology because the science teacher isn't introducing a certain calculation in the same format, or using the same terms.
Lastly, some science teachers might not feel comfortable teaching math, and professional development should be available for them. For example, graphing calculators, and their Venier applications might be great tools in the Biology classroom, but they aren't used because teachers might not feel comfortable with their own level of mastery.

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