An intro non-majors biology course should provide a broad overview of the 
science of biology and its major disciplines.  It is very possible to make 
topics like physiology, anatomy, evolution and cellular biology relevant to 20 
year-old students.  And I agree that in a non-majors course extra effort should 
be given to showing students how the biological discipines mesh and why its 
important for everyone on earth to have an understanding of how biology is 
important in their lives.

The issues mentioned by Bill - safe water, carbon/methane emissions, waste 
disposal - are  more appropriate in an intro environmental studies course.  
They could be used for an example of an application of ecology, (although loss 
of biodiversity is perhaps better), but an intro biology course should not 
focus just on environmental issues.  That would not be fair to the students.

Thomas Rosburg, PhD
Professor, Department of Biology
Drake Biodiversity Center and Herbarium
Drake University, 2507 University Avenue
Des Moines, IA 

From: Ecological Society of America: grants, jobs, news 
[ECOLOG-L@LISTSERV.UMD.EDU] on behalf of Bill Maher []
Sent: Sunday, May 27, 2012 10:33 AM
Subject: Re: [ECOLOG-L] Non-Majors Biology

Good morning,

I'm not an ecologist, biologist or any other type of natural science type --
I'm a 63-year-old news editor who has been visiting this and other sites to
understand worldwide environmental issues.

The main thing I remember from my course 40-plus years ago for non-biology
majors is that I don't remember much of anything. We memorized a lot of
terms and definitions that we promptly forgot about 30 minutes after the
final exam.

I agree with Emily that less is sometimes more. I personally would have
benefitted greatly from a course that touched on the broad issues facing our
world today -- safe water, carbon/methane emissions, waste disposal (I
thoroughly HATE all the discarded plastic bottles along the shoulders of
highways), sustainable communities, forest protection -- than from a course
that spent a lot of time talking about cellular functions or DNA/RNA
replication, or memorizing terms like apical meristem or convergent

The non-biology students who sometimes advance in life to become our
lawmakers and policy makers would be better
served to learn more about the scientific method, so they can understand how
a theory is reached and how it becomes generally accepted. They probably
would have a greater understanding of scientific principles if they spent a
day or two of
their instructional time on a bird-banding team or collecting water samples
from below the sewage treatment plant.

Here's a non-scientific parallel: I minored in economics. Against the advice
of my advisor, I took a course called "Economics of Black America," and I
spent a lot of time going through minority/marginal neighborhoods to learn
how they got to be the way they were. The stuff I learned in that one course
has benefitted me and my news organization more in the last 40 years than
all the other economics courses put together.

That's my two cents worth.

----- Original Message -----
From: "Emily Pollina" <>
Sent: Saturday, May 26, 2012 11:20 AM
Subject: Re: [ECOLOG-L] Non-Majors Biology

> Hi!  That sounds like a very interesting course.  I definitely understand
> the struggle.  I taught a non-majors class on climate change last fall,
> and
> I had similar difficulty in setting the syllabus- it's hard to know what
> to
> cover when you know your class is perhaps the last and only biology (or
> science) course for these students.
>   That said, I would say that less is more, especially in a non-majors
> class.  My fear is that if you try to cover too many units, students will
> have a superficial understanding of the topics, which will quickly fade
> after the final exam.  (This might happen anyway, but the more superficial
> their understanding, the more likely it is.)  I think that it would
> probably better to cover a small number of contemporary issues in more
> depth.   I think the students will benefit more from learning how
> scientists tackle a problem and how to evaluate "scientific"
> pronouncements
> that they read/hear on the news.  (In other words, I'm advocating for a
> substantial nature of science focus throughout the units you choose, which
> tends to work better if you do a small number of topics in more depth.)
> Frankly, I think we as educators have to (reluctantly) accept that we
> can't cover everything, and so eventually our students will have to find
> information on their own if they wish to make informed decisions about a
> particular topic.  What we can try to do for them is to help them develop
> the intellectual tools to make that possible.
>        In addition,  I like the idea of focusing more on ecology, because
> it sounds like the students have many opportunities to learn the molecular
> biology and genetics side of things in the other courses you describe.
> But
> you might consider some integrated units (e.g. the ecology of infectious
> diseases or the environmental side of cancer), where you could introduce
> molecular biology/genetics/development topics with ecological topics, and
> show the students how those two fields can inform and strengthen each
> other.
>        I wish I could be helpful about textbooks, but I can't really think
> of a single book.  I'm wondering if you want to assemble a list of
> prospective unit topics, and then send another email out to the list-
> knowing what topics you are hoping will be included would be a big help.
> Sometimes the university bookstore will also assemble a "course pack" of
> excerpts from different books.  That can be expensive, depending on the
> price of copyright, but it's worth looking into if people can recommend
> only favorite book chapters.
>      Best wishes,
>   Emily Pollina
>   Ph.D. Candidate
> On Fri, May 25, 2012 at 3:49 PM, Johnson, David R
> <>wrote:
>> Greetings,
>> I am teaching a "contemporary biology" course for non-science majors in
>> the fall and for the first time I am fortunate to be able to organize the
>> course at my discretion. Effectively, I can present any material I wish
>> as
>> long as I hit broad themes such as Cell Theory and Evolution. While this
>> is
>> certainly doable, I am struggling deciding exactly what content to
>> present.
>> The course is meant to present the science of contemporary issues that
>> may
>> be important and/or interesting to the non-science student rather than a
>> broad survey course encompassing all of biology. There is another such
>> survey course with a set syllabus that I am not teaching, and there are
>> two
>> other sections of contemporary biology that are focusing on genetics. I
>> would like to focus on the many ecological issues that both affect and
>> are
>> affected by humans. My struggle involves the fact that this may be the
>> only
>> (or last) biology these students get before we cast them out into the
>> world. So I want to be sure and cover all my bases.
>> I am writing Ecolog with two questions. First, what is the relative merit
>> of including as much biology as possible as opposed to focusing on fewer
>> but perhaps more directly relevant ecological topics? These students will
>> most likely not become scientists, and certainly won't need to memorize
>> the
>> structure of all the amino acids, for example. On the other hand, would I
>> be cheating them somehow by not providing enough information to them for
>> making informed decisions on topics outside of my direct area of
>> expertise,
>> such as developmental biology and stem cells?
>> The other question I have involves textbooks. Is anyone aware of a text
>> (or perhaps pop-science books) designed for the non-science major that
>> focuses on ecology, in particular the involvement of humans in ecological
>> systems? I haven't been able to find something I like and am looking for
>> recommendations.
>> Thanks and I'll circulate a summary response if/when the discussion runs
>> its course.
>> Cheers,
>> David
>> David R. Johnson PhD.
>> Postdoctoral Research Associate
>> Systems Ecology Lab
>> University of Texas at El Paso

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