Integrated Biology, Math, Statistical Experiences Add Up To Expanded Opportunity For Aggies

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COLLEGE STATION – Ten years ago, the Texas A&M University College of Science made a commitment to students in its most popular undergraduate major, biology, embarking on a new approach to traditional teaching involving more mathematics and statistics.

In 2004, Texas A&M earned selection by the National Science Foundation (NSF) as one of five sites for a bold, nationwide experiment — Integrated Undergraduate Research Experiences in Biological and Mathematical Sciences, an initiative designed to enhance higher education in the biological, physical, mathematical and information sciences and better reflect the profound changes that have occurred in biological research and communication during the past two decades.

Texas A&M’s version of the NSF’s revolutionary statement, the Undergraduate Program in Biological and Mathematical Sciences (UBM), integrates curricula in the three departments involved in the $1.75 million grant (biology, mathematics and statistics). Moreover, since 2010, Texas A&M has been partnering with Prairie View A&M University in the comprehensive effort to offer unprecedented opportunity for hands-on research in a variety of burgeoning life sciences-related areas, from protein analysis and biological clocks to cardiovascular dynamics and population ecology. The goal is two-fold: enhanced educational experiences and better prepared graduates destined to enter careers and environments that are increasingly interdisciplinary in nature.

“Biology is becoming more and more mathematical, although it historically had been the least mathematical,” said Dr. H. Joseph Newton, dean of the Texas A&M College of Science. “For example, students in biology were not required to take calculus. Now, it has changed. The large datasets produced by whole genome sequencing projects indicate the need for biology majors to know more and more about math and statistics.”

Dr. Thomas McKnight, professor and head of the Texas A&M Department of Biology, notes that mathematical components have existed in biology for many years but traditionally have not been reflected in the curriculum. He believes the UBM program has allowed for real-world collaboration between the biology, mathematics and statistics departments that will better prepare Texas A&M students for biological research in the 21st century.

“The students benefit from working with biology and math faculty on real research projects and from having nearly all of the $1.75 million budget go toward student stipends,” McKnight said. “Our department has benefited by using the UBM program to attract and retain some of our best students. And overall, it has led to many department-wide improvements in the way we educate biology majors at Texas A&M.”

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