For all my career I’ve taught on an interdisciplinary degree program – the BSc in Biotechnology at DCU. Our program contains about 35% mathematical material (chemical engineering and maths) and the rest is biology of all kinds.Getting the level of material right is a recurring challenge for the lecturer. For the student, getting to grips with a wide range of subjects, each with their own ‘philosophies’ as well as content, is often just too difficult and they fail to master any aspect of the program. I am a great believer of learning by immersion in a subject and I think this is very difficult to achieve if the subject matter is too broad.
Repeatedly and throughout my career, our school has revisited the whole idea of ‘integrating engineering with biology’ – not the other way around you will notice! To be honest, this tends to irritate me considerably. As a classically trained chemical engineer, I have tried to adapt what I teach, and how I assess it, to make it relevant to bioprocessing. Indeed, most of my research in membrane technology focuses on biological systems. However, while I have no doubt that my biology colleagues are adapting their notes for a biotechnology program, I still don’t see any effort by them to make their material really quantitative. Without trawling through all the past papers, I’m pretty sure that a quantitative question, even a simple analysis of enzyme kinetic data, has never, or very rarely, been asked – except in ‘engineering’ papers. The lack of a quantitative approach by the biologists creates a split in the students’ mind which tells them ‘biology=essays’, ‘engineering=maths’.
I wonder is anyone out there teaching a biological subject in a reasonably quantitative way and do you ask ‘sums‘ in your exams?