The Biology Requirement is Broken

I chose to study bioengineering. I love biology, but I did not love Modern Biology. It had nothing to do with the teacher (she was awesome) or the subject. It was simply that I was bored. I’d just taken the AP bio exam and the SAT II in biology. Everything we learned in Modern Biology, besides specific interests of the professor, was a review for me.

This is a situation faced by many Olin students, and it needs to change. Modern Biology should be a class which a students can pass out of by taking a comprehensive exam, giving students a choice to take four credits of another biology-related class. There is precedent for this among other Olin classes, it allows for more in-depth study, and it increases engagement in biology at Olin.

First, there is a precedent for this. Math requirements feature pass-out exams which allow students to proceed to more advanced classes. There are three physics requirements to choose from: modeling E&M, traditional E&M, and mechanics. Similarly, there are two chemistry options to choose from. All of these are core sciences, like biology, but none of them require that you take one specific class.

Second, enabling students with a background in biology to pass out of the class allows for more in-depth study. Many of the students who would or could pass out of the Modern Biology requirement plan to study bioengineering regardless; a pass-out exam would allow interested students to take more bio-related classes during their time at Olin.

Finally, allowing students to pass out of Modern Biology would increase engagement in the biology program at Olin. Repetition is boring and taking a class comprised primarily of material you’ve already covered is disengaging. This hurts more than just the individual student; it hurts the entire biology program at Olin.
For example, a student hears that Modern Biology is boring and avoids taking it until junior or senior year. As a result, that student is unable to take many courses for which Modern Biology is a prerequisite, like Microbial Diversity, and Cancer. The advanced biology classes are engaging for students in many majors, but all of them require basic biology as a prerequisite, and all of them are hurt by disengagement in Modern Biology.

In addition, professors face the dual dilemma of teaching students from a wide variety of experience levels. As long as Modern Biology is the only option to fulfill the biology requirement, professors will always either leave some students bored or some behind.
I am aware of two arguments against this proposed change. The first is that a test cannot assess biological knowledge. However, if a test cannot accurately measure biological knowledge, then how can the AP, SAT or SAT II exams? Furthermore, then how can our professors’ examinations, midterms, or quizzes? What can test biological knowledge if not an exam? Any answer can provide an alternative; the exam could manifest as an oral or practical exam, a project, or involvement in research.

The second argument is that many high-school biology classes do not cover lab practices or at least not to the extent necessary in a research environment such as Olin’s labs. The solution is to have a two-credit lab course which can also be passed out of given evidence of significant prior lab experience, for which there is also a precedent.

Olin is frequently described as innovative, and there is nothing more essential to innovation than change. I call upon Olin to live up to this attribute — be flexible. Entertain alternatives. The current system can be improved upon. Unless a convincing argument is made against these points, it is against the concept of Olin and one of the founding precepts of our community (openness to change) to refuse to consider an alternative to Modern Biology.

What do you think?
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