In his Guest Commentary for the September 2020 issue of ABT (“Using COVID-19 to Reboot Biology Education”), Dr. Gordon Uno asks biology teachers how we can use the pandemic in a positive way and suggests that we focus on teaching controversial socioscientific issues such as evolution and climate change in order to better help students become scientifically prepared citizens. I couldn’t agree more with this suggestion and would like to add one of my own that may help bring his suggestion into practice. I propose that we recraft the traditional one-year high school biology course into a required two years of high school biology taken during the freshman and senior years.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has shown us how critical it is that we produce citizens who can understand and effectively reason about the intersections between biology and society. Now more than ever, being scientifically literate means having a strong foundation in the biological sciences. In the common model of high school science, biology is taught first and followed, for many students, by chemistry and physics. I contend that it is not possible to give a student anything but a very shallow and potentially distorted view of the biological sciences in just one year of instruction (especially for younger students). Given the central importance of biology in the modern world, I think it is imperative that we restructure the high school science curriculum and expand instructional time for biology.
Our current model for high school science, originally formulated in the 1890s, has significant disadvantages for biology, a field that has expanded and changed dramatically in the years since. Consider the challenge faced by a biology instructor who is teaching one of the first high school science classes. In that year, you have to introduce students to a more advanced level of scientific inquiry (lab skills and safety, experimental design, statistics, graphing), teach the basics of physics and especially chemistry (because you can’t really understand biology without them), and then hopefully you can teach something about molecular biology, cell biology, cellular respiration, photosynthesis, cell division, molecular genetics, biotechnology, Mendelian genetics, evolution, ecology, anatomy, and physiology – all in one year. This creates a situation in which both breadth and depth are compromised. Try to cover as many topics as possible and you hear the all-too-common criticism that biology classes are excessively focused on memorizing facts. Go for depth and you will likely have minimal time for foundational topics like evolution, ecology, and anatomy and physiology (admittedly, I typically teach about one week of ecology and usually touch on anatomy and physiology only in passing). This risks giving students a distorted view of biology that may turn them off from further study; naturally, some students are going to gravitate more toward ecology and organismal biology, but it’s very challenging to spend significant time on these subjects, given current time constraints. Doing so also robs students of the opportunity to make the connections between different fields of biology that lead to deeper understanding.
In the proposed “bookend” model, the initial biology course can now give extended time to general scientific topics and not have to worry about providing a comprehensive survey of biology. Topics such as genetics, evolution, and ecology (crucial to understanding many of the most important socioscientific issues) could be reserved for the senior-year course. This could lead to a more logically structured curriculum in which the freshman course focuses on foundational scientific and biological concepts and the senior course, with more mature and experienced students, can focus on providing depth in a narrower range of topics.
There is reason to think that greater depth in biology will help us make significant progress on the broader goals of science education, such as promoting scientific literacy and interdisciplinary thinking. The more inherently ethical and social nature of biology makes it the most accessible discipline for teaching socioscientific issues. Providing time in the senior year biology curriculum for students to do an extended inquiry on a socioscientific issue of interest may result in a uniquely meaningful and beneficial experience for students who do not have a particularly strong interest in science but have been affected by one of these issues on a personal level. Biology may also serve as a natural platform for the integration of other STEM disciplines in many cases. While I believe it would be best if the senior course were based primarily in biology, there certainly should be ample room to gravitate toward other disciplines.
One thing we learn from biology is that rapid changes in the environment can cause a population to adapt (or become extinct). I believe the change in our environment brought about by COVID-19 places us in a similar circumstance; science education needs to adapt so that it can better serve our needs both as individuals and as a society. Again, we can look to biology for guidance – adaptation requires variation. I have proposed one variation on our current model of high school science, but there are certainly many possibilities, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. I think what’s most important is that we take this time to act like the scientists that we hope our students become – experiment as much as possible, analyze the results, and collectively work toward building knowledge and improving science instruction.