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Biology Laboratories: Are They Disappearing?

Are colleges dropping biology laboratories? Some people say yes, while others don't see it. Both sides agree, however, that economic factors could result in the demise of labs in some college biology courses. Paleobotanist Jeffrey Osborn, of the biology department at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., is a member of the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR), a Washington, DC-based consultancy that conducts external reviews for biology departments. The results of these reviews are con

By | May 27, 2002

Are colleges dropping biology laboratories? Some people say yes, while others don't see it. Both sides agree, however, that economic factors could result in the demise of labs in some college biology courses.

Paleobotanist Jeffrey Osborn, of the biology department at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., is a member of the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR), a Washington, DC-based consultancy that conducts external reviews for biology departments. The results of these reviews are confidential, though Osborn notes that some programs are reducing labs. But, Osborn admits that there are no statistics; the biological sciences do not have an accrediting organization similar to that of the American Chemical Society, which accredits undergraduate chemistry degree programs.

Geneticist Marvin Druger, chair of the department of science teaching and professor of biology at Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY, believes that the trend is for colleges dropping biology labs, though his university is not doing so. Druger is also president of the Society for College Science Teachers, and he is a long-time member of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). "I think there tends to be less laboratory teaching," says Druger. "When I was a college student, every course I took in biology had a laboratory, and now, I don't think that's the case."

Money Matters

Financial reasons are driving this trend. In departments that are dropping laboratories, says Osborn, "It's not a pedagogical issue, ... it largely has to do with resources." The biggest problem, he says, is the insufficient number of faculty or graduate teaching assistants necessary to teach laboratories. Gene Walton, a professor of biology at Tallahassee (Fla.) Community College, says that the school, which currently enrolls 14,000-15,000 students, dropped introductory biology labs more than 20 years ago. He notes, "It's just a facilities and staffing problem. We would have hundreds and hundreds of sections and no place to have them." He continues by asking, "Where are we going to put all these people and where are we going to hire 200 teaching assistants?"

Courtesy of Edna Kaneshiro

Edna Kaneshiro

The problem, says microbiologist/cell physiologist Edna Kaneshiro of University of Cincinnati in Ohio, is the expense. She notes that laboratories using live organisms are especially expensive, compared to those using fossils or fixed, permanently mounted slides that do not need replacement each year. "If you're going to [run] a laboratory nowadays, you need electrophoresis equipment," says Druger. "There's modern technology you should be introducing into your laboratory; you need more than just the basic microscope." He further notes that because of the costs, administrators are not as keen about labs as a budget item.

Ann Lumsden, past president of the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT), and a professor of biology at Florida State University in Tallahassee, recalls that a few years ago, two community college teachers approached her and requested that the NABT send a letter to their schools requesting that laboratories not be cut. "If [college administrations] cut funds, they cut physical education, music and art, and labs," says Lumsden.

Genomics researcher Jonathan Arnold is a professor of genetics and statistics at the University of Georgia in Athens, which is not cutting laboratories. He explains that the students' experimental laboratory costs about $200 per student per semester, but the school charges only $25 per student per semester. The government can subsidize laboratory costs for state universities, he explains. Increasing enrollments are putting additional pressures on laboratory courses. "I used to have 60 students in my introductory genetics class for juniors and seniors. Now I have 200," says Arnold.

From a professor's standpoint, remarks Druger, "it takes a lot of time and a lot of effort to do laboratory teaching," yet the professor is often given only one credit for the laboratory and three for the lecture. And, especially for untenured faculty, "the pressure is on publication and grants; in terms of tenure, the professor can't afford a lot of time to teach the laboratory," says Druger. On the other hand, comments Osborn, "I never heard any faculty member or department say, 'We stopped doing labs because we weren't getting credit for it.'"

Kaneshiro is developing a new lecture-only course in parasitology. "The person who retired before me always gave a lab course, but I'm not about to do that," she remarks. "I just don't have the time or the resources." She explains that big universities, where research is very important, differ from small colleges and community colleges, in that the latter focus on teaching. But students who do well at Cincinnati and other schools can do research with a faculty member.

Druger has written extensively on the importance of rewarding faculty not just for scientific research, but also for what he calls creative scholarship. In a recent paper,1 he defined this as including "innovative programs, software development, curriculum development, effective teaching, significant articles that are not data-based, and unusual approaches to dealing with knowledge in the field." A faculty member whose expertise is in research but not teaching should spend more time in research, says Druger, while one who excels at teaching but not research should do more teaching. Both "should be rewarded equally," he says.

The Changing Laboratory

Laboratories that remain are changing. Says Muriel Poston of the American Association of University Professors, and a biology professor who is currently on leave from Howard University in Washington, DC: "We're talking about restructuring [the] laboratory component, moving from demonstration to more student-inquiry based laboratories." Osborn notes that laboratories are "shifting from a cookbook-type recipe-driven laboratory to an inquiry-based laboratory with students working in groups."

Timothy Cooney, director of the NSTA Standing Committee on College Science Teaching and a professor of earth science and science education at University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, is not aware of any discontinued laboratories. "What I am aware of," he says, "is some biology departments are eliminating labs in which dissection is involved ... dissection is being replaced by computer simulation."

NSTA's associate director for professional programs, Wendell Mohling, notes that, in general, "Computer simulations are not substitutes for doing laboratories [but can be] wonderful when set up in [a] nice inquiry fashion." He believes that they are good replacements for experiments that would be too toxic. On the other hand, computers also add to the cost of laboratories.

Why Keep Labs

If dropping laboratories is becoming a trend, it is one that many science teachers lament. "The hands-on component is a critical piece in studying biology," says Wayne Carley, executive director of the NABT. He notes that people always remember their high school biology classes. "The really important part of science—as most people who take the course are not going to be scientists—is understanding the process. You don't get that process from multiple-choice tests." Adds geneticist John Jenkins, chair of biology at Swarthmore College, "Biology courses without labs are virtually meaningless." Swarthmore, like many other small liberal arts colleges, is maintaining its laboratories: "There's absolutely no way we would ever get rid of labs," Jenkins says.

At Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis., labs have been given as courses separate from lectures for more than 30 years and may soon be offered to nonscience majors, explains biology department chair Brian Unsworth. He wonders, "Do students appreciate [labs]? I'm not sure." But the proof may come when students find that they are well prepared for the MCAT and GRE tests and even later as scientists.

Courtesy of Nicole Mahoney

Nicole Mahoney


Nicole Mahoney, a postdoc studying cytoskeletal motor proteins at University of California, San Francisco, recently wrote the following unsolicited E-mail to her college genetics professor: "I definitely have fond memories of your class—especially lab. You were always very enthusiastic about research and I think that your labs were better than most because they were realistic. Some other college labs were too organized and staged ... real lab work is not flawless and things don't always work out on the first try. I also remembered that you explained to us that you taught yourself many of the things you knew while you were in grad school. That was a shock because most of us were spoon-fed everything up until then—but that's what scientists do, isn't it?"


Myrna E. Watanabe is a freelance science writer in Patterson, NY, and the unnamed former professor in the last paragraph.
1. M. Druger, "The concept of creative scholarship," Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education, 30:124-5, 2001.

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