September 30, 2002
Volume 80, Number 39
CENEAR 80 39 p. 36
ISSN 0009-2347


NRC report urges revamping undergraduate curricula to include more chemistry


Earlier this month, the National Research Council released "BIO2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists." It's the kind of report that could easily be ignored by chemists, but that would be a grave mistake. Indeed, there are several reasons why the report should be required reading for everyone who is involved in teaching chemistry--and physics, math, and computer science--at the college and university level.

First, these educators need to consider how their courses can be more relevant to tomorrow's research biologists. Second, those departments most directly responsible for the undergraduate education of biology majors cannot carry out the report's recommendations without the involvement of their colleagues in other disciplines. Last, if some of the report's recommendations are carried out--as they already have been at some colleges and universities--the teaching of chemistry for chemistry majors will also improve.

The National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute requested the report. Their concerns about the future of biomedical scientists and research received a warm welcome from National Academy of Sciences President Bruce Alberts, who in turn pressed Lubert Stryer, an eminent neurobiologist at Stanford University, into service as the report committee's director.

"Bruce and others felt that there is a gap between the research that is being done and the way students are being educated," Stryer tells C&EN. "Our research is interdisciplinary, but our education is not.

"SO WE DECIDED to get together a group of people whose own work is interdisciplinary and examine what needs to be done to educate future research biologists--not premedical students or biology in general, but those headed to Ph.D. careers."

The committee had 11 members covering different disciplines and three panels to look at chemistry, physics, and mathematics and computer science. Columbia University chemistry professor Ronald Breslow represented chemistry on the committee and headed the chemistry panel.

"Biology is a huge field," Breslow says. "When you think of educating biologists, you think about people who work in everything ranging from the evolution of bird wings to the chemical structure of ribosomes."

Nonetheless, a truism is that "much of modern biology has become increasingly chemical in character," the panel wrote, and the trend to using chemistry more in biomedical research will continue. The panel recommended that all future biological research students have an effective working knowledge of concepts and skills in chemistry (examples are listed in the report) and that students who plan careers in biology research have at least two years of chemistry courses taught in chemistry departments.

"Students need their chemistry background as soon as possible," the panel stated, "so that their biology courses containing biochemistry and other chemistry-based materials can be taught on a sophisticated level. In particular, the attempts in some biology departments to teach biochemistry without requiring students to have a knowledge of organic chemistry turns the course into a baffling exercise in acronyms, not chemical structures."

Thus, the panel recommended that biology students take chemistry courses containing a significant amount of organic chemistry in their freshman year. One plan used at Barnard College teaches general chemistry in the first semester and starts the organic chemistry sequence in the second semester. The second semester of organic chemistry comes in the fall of the second year, and that spring, students can take a course in physical chemistry.

"This makes tremendous sense," Breslow says. But the panel "also identified a number of issues that could hamper such changes, including the lack of appropriate teaching materials and the need to seriously revise some curriculums completely."

THE PANEL recognized that "it's important for chemistry teachers to take into account the interests of all their students," Breslow says, "and not pretend that they are all chemistry majors. We need to give more biological examples in our chemistry classes to make it clear that the fundamental science being taught has clear implications for current biology. And we need to tell the students what's left to be discovered in biology and medicine and how chemistry can help supply the answers.

"I think it's possible to meet the needs of these biology majors and make an even stronger course for the chemistry major, who will also benefit from understanding how what they know is relevant to biology and medicine," Breslow says.

"We're calling for a new teaching approach," Stryer says. He applauds the creation of new teaching materials, such as the American Chemical Society's "Chemistry" text to be published by W. H. Freeman in 2003 covering traditional general chemistry topics in a context appropriate for biology, environmental science, and engineering students; modules that can introduce interdisciplinary concepts more quickly than revamped texts; more project-based labs; and more undergraduate research. Examples abound in the report.

Breslow tells C&EN that the report has the best chance of having an impact if "the faculty in chemistry and biology departments meet together to discuss how best to accomplish the goals of the report." The report is available for free on the Web (


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Copyright © 2002 American Chemical Society