The challenges of the 21st century require students to think critically and use quantitative skills. As the field of biology evolves, these skills will become fundamental to the study of biology. John von Neumann, the Hungarian-born mathematician, once said, “If people do not believe that mathematics is simple, it is only because they do not realize how complicated life is.” From a science–math point of view, people do not realize how complicated life is. If one is going to study science and/or engineering, they are going to need to develop skills in mathematics because it is at the core of all science and engineering. As we study biology, and start digging deeper and peel back layer after layer, math will be at the core.
The major focus in biology has always been the study of life. However, there have been many changes in biology over recent years. New fields of biological research have been emerging. Synthetic biology, bioinformatics, and systems biology are just a few. The development and the rapid changes in technologies available have expanded the research opportunities in these fields and many others. All these developments, plus the massive amounts of data that have been collected, stored, and available for analysis, make skills in mathematics, statistical analysis, and computational skills necessary competencies in studying modern biology.
The need for more “quantitative skills” in biology education and biology research for undergraduates was highlighted in the BIO2010 report (National Research Council [NRC] 2003), which states:
How biologists design, perform, and analyze experiments is changing swiftly. Biological concepts and models are becoming quantitative and biological research quantitative, and biological research has become critically dependent on concepts and methods drawn from other scientific disciplines. The connections between the biological sciences and the physical sciences, mathematics and computer science are rapidly becoming deeper and more expansive.
America’s Lab Report: Investigation in High School Science (NRC, 2005) stated in summary that “laboratory experiences provide opportunities for students to interact directly with the material world (or with data from the material world), using the tools, data collection techniques, models, and theories of science.” Why are mathematical, computational, and statistical skills necessary? Mathematics is difficult to define, but the characteristics usually included are quantity, change, structure, and shape. Mathematicians look for patterns and create an unproven inference. Skills students need to use mathematics include quantities and skills involving measuring and collecting data (http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/apc/public/repository/AP_Bio_Quantitative_Skills_Guide-2012.pdf).
Computational thinking uses computers to do calculations for us and are another approach to look at science today. For example, using computers allows students to develop simulations that combine the mathematical representations to explore models of complex systems. In the classroom, students can use a free modeling program found online and study a population model using Hardy–Weinberg to observe changes in allele frequencies. Students can use probes like a carbon dioxide sensor to collect large amounts of data and to learn to analyze it and evaluate the data (http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/apc/members/courses/teachers_corner/218954.html).
I have talked to many high school colleagues, and like me, they are surprised how few of their students have used a simple spreadsheet program before reaching their classroom. It is so important that students learn how to use spreadsheets, run statistical analyses, and display data in appropriate formats such as tables and graphs. Using statistics with the mathematical and computational tools today will help students design experiments and move on to the next step in their research.
The goal in biology and science classes at all levels is to teach students how to learn and process information as a scientist would. If more inquiry, reasoning, and “quantitative skills” are incorporated into your curriculum, students can and will model the behavior of a scientist. One of the goals of the Next Generation Science Standards (http://www.nextgenscience.org/) is to help students perform observations, explore, design scientific investigations, and discover some knowledge him or herself in working through the process of problem solving (NRC, 2011).
All levels of biology education need to embrace these changes and become part of the solution to improve biology education. We can do that by embracing mathematics and quantitative lessons now and in the future. Even if our students do not become scientists, many, many careers today require that students be able to use these tools, and we need to prepare them to do so.