On the Disappearance of Biology Labs

Volume 16 | Issue 13 | 11 | Jun. 24, 2002 Previous | Next On the Disappearance of Biology Labs On the Disappearance of Biology Labs, 1 ... After reading this article on the potential disappearance of laboratory-based biology courses across the United States,1 I would like to cite one tangible effect of the loss of these courses in California that we have witnessed. During the last couple of de

Jun 24, 2002
Michael Janda
letters
Volume 16 | Issue 13 | 11 | Jun. 24, 2002

On the Disappearance of Biology Labs

On the Disappearance of Biology Labs, 1 ...
After reading this article on the potential disappearance of laboratory-based biology courses across the United States,1 I would like to cite one tangible effect of the loss of these courses in California that we have witnessed. During the last couple of decades, the number of universities in California offering basic laboratory courses including work with infectious agents (e.g., microbiology, medical microbiology) has dropped precipitously in favor of molecular-based venues. Key reasons for these changes include student interest in new wave molecular technology and fiscal limitations. The end result, however, has been a dwindling pool of qualified college graduates with appropriate upper and lower division courses that make them eligible for training and certification as public health microbiologists in California. Currently we are facing a crisis in California regarding public health microbiologists. These are the same individuals who are needed to deal with bioterrorism, vector-borne diseases, food-borne and water-borne disease outbreaks, STDs, etc.

Basic fundamental training in the isolation and identification of pathogenic bacteria and viruses are still valued skills needed in clinical and public health laboratories to support primary and reference identification procedures. I am afraid these skills are vanishing due to a lack of appropriate college/university courses, which results in a reduced pool of trainees. The end result of this demise can have severe repercussions for all those involved in diagnostic microbiology and infectious diseases.

J. Michael Janda, PhD
Chief, Microbial Diseases Laboratory
Division of Communicable Disease Control
California Department of Health Services
2151 Berkeley Way - Room 330
Berkeley, CA 94704-1011


... On the Disappearance of Biology Labs, 2
It was interesting, but disappointing, to read the first few paragraphs of the article on the demise of biology laboratories in undergraduate education. The assertion was that there is a trend toward loss of college biology laboratories. Yet none of the scientists quoted could provide any statistics on how many hours of laboratory are being lost. In fact, several expressly stated that their institutions are not eliminating labs. Given that there is no data to support these perceptions, how concerned should scientific educators be in the face of anecdotal evidence?

It seems that there must be a balance between quantity and quality of time spent. A thousand hours in the laboratory repeating cookbook labs is hardly the best use of the limited hours and funding available. Fortunately, as related in the article, the quality of the laboratory hours appears to be improving as instructors extend beyond the simple recipe-based labs to include student-inquiry based exercises. In terms of quantity, maybe the biologists should look to the model provided by the American Chemical Society (http://chemistry.org). The ACS Committee on Professional Training has determined that 500 hours of laboratory is sufficient for a certified ACS bachelor of science degree in chemistry (300-350 hours in the core chemistry classes, with the balance of hours coming from advanced laboratories or research). Perhaps the quantity of laboratory hours needed for biologists can be determined in a similar fashion by a consortium of educators representing the vastly diverse fields within the discipline. In addition to the pedagogical arguments for keeping labs, one can include the fact that most medical schools have a core requirement of two semesters of introductory biology with laboratory. Any school removing laboratories from their introductory classes would be doing prospective premedical students a serious disservice.

The anecdotal evidence discussed in the article should prompt concerned biologists to begin acquiring data to determine whether there is a serious decline in number of undergraduate laboratories offered. Beyond that, such evidence is certainly not sufficient to show that there is a problem.

Jeffrey Hugdahl
Department of Chemistry
Mercer University
Macon, GA 31204

1. M.E. Watanabe, "Biology laboratories: Are they disappearing?" The Scientist, 16[11]:23-4, May 27, 2002.
©2002, The Scientist Inc.
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