HHMI selects Purdue to help create new interdisciplinary science curriculum

September 1, 2011

Christine Hrycyna, at right, speaks with students in a general chemistry course at Purdue. Hrycyna, an associate professor of chemistry, is part of a team of faculty working on transforming the chemistry curriculum for students in biological sciences and prehealth majors. The Purdue team is part of a national Howard Hughes Medical Institute project to create and share effective models for teaching interdisciplinary science. (Purdue University photo/Andrew Hancock)

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Purdue University is part of a team of four universities chosen to participate in a $1.8 million Howard Hughes Medical Institute project to create and share effective models for teaching interdisciplinary science, with Purdue faculty focusing on transforming the chemistry curriculum.

The four-year National Experiment in Undergraduate Science Education, or NEXUS, will develop resources for a national basic science curriculum for premedical and prehealth students.

Marc Loudon, the Cwalina Distinguished Professor of Medicinal Chemistry and Purdue coordinator for the project, said there is a national need for greater biology focus in the physics, mathematics and chemistry courses taken by prehealth students in order to better prepare them to become interdisciplinary scientists and clinicians.

"Scientists have become accustomed to working across disciplinary boundaries, but the basic science classes in mathematics, physics and chemistry offered to biology students by many universities have not evolved as rapidly as the biological sciences themselves," said Loudon who also serves on the project's national executive steering committee. "We need to take a fresh look at the way we teach these sciences to students interested in biological sciences. We need to weed out less relevant topics, teach the more relevant topics more thoroughly and make sure that students understand the relevance of these sciences to biology - all while maintaining the intellectual rigor for which courses in these areas are well known."

Howard Hughes Medical Institute, or HHMI, selected Purdue; the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; the University of Maryland, College Park; and the University of Miami to collaborate on the project. Each institution is creating a different aspect of the curriculum, including new courses and ways of assessing how well they work. The schools will create interdisciplinary modules that can be dropped into an existing course or integrated into the redesign of an entire program. In addition, each school will implement at least part of the curriculum developed by the other three universities.

Purdue is revising the introductory chemistry courses to include more biological chemistry. In addition to Loudon, professors working on the curriculum include Jean Chmielewski, the A.W. Kramer Distinguished Professor of Chemistry; Christine Hrycyna, an associate professor of chemistry; and David Sanders, an associate professor of biological sciences.

Loudon teaches the organic chemistry course for prepharmacy students in the College of Pharmacy and is working on developing the organic chemistry portion with Chmielewski, who teaches the organic chemistry courses for premedical, preveterinary and other students interested in biological sciences.

Hrycyna created a one-semester general chemistry course for prepharmacy students that uses biological examples to illustrate the chemistry concepts. The group plans to evolve this course into the general chemistry course taken by students in the biological sciences. Hrycyna also is developing a one-semester biochemistry course to serve the same group of students.

Sanders, who is the chair of the biological sciences curriculum committee at Purdue, will work with the team on the biology portions of the curriculum.

Other professors participating in the project include Dennis Minchella, associate dean for undergraduate education in the College of Science; Marcy Towns, a professor of chemical education; and Trevor Anderson, an associate professor of chemical education, who will work on project assessment.

An emphasis of the project is to move beyond testing memorization of facts to assessing a student's ability to demonstrate scientific competencies and use what they have learned to analyze and solve problems, Sanders said.

"The courses will teach students how to think and understand relationships, so that they can apply what they learn in one area to another," Sanders said. "The goal of the project is to have a seamless core curriculum that leads to the graduation of better biologists." 

At Purdue, this all began with a number of chemistry and biology professors discussing the "biology relevance" problem.

"Undergraduate chemistry courses have traditionally covered the same topics whether or not the course is designed for students with a biological interest such as prepharmacy, premedicine or a biological sciences major," Sanders said. "We want to teach these students precisely the chemistry they need to understand proteins, metabolism and the chemical reactions involved in life and human health. This is what will be most useful for the students in their later courses and throughout their careers."

HHMI also was following this problem and collaborated with the Association of American Medical Colleges to convene a committee of scientists, physicians and science educators that recommended fundamental changes in undergraduate education in the 2009 report "Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians." The report outlined eight interdisciplinary competencies that science undergraduate students should master.  For example, instead of requiring specific physics courses, premedical students would be expected to "demonstrate knowledge of basic physical principles and their application to the understanding of living systems."

Cynthia Bauerle, who oversees the NEXUS project and is a senior program officer in HHMI’s precollege and undergraduate program, also cited two other significant reports. The National Academy of Sciences released a report, "A New Biology for the 21st Century," which envisions an interdisciplinary future for biology research; and the American Association for the Advancement of Science and National Science Foundation released a report, "Vision and Change," which makes recommendations for reforming the way that undergraduate biology is taught.

“There are many conversations heading in the same direction, addressing how young people should be trained to participate in biomedicine and medical practice in the future,” Bauerle said. “NEXUS may be nicely positioned to be a hub for that broader national conversation.”

The HHMI news release is available at http://www.hhmi.org/news/nexus20110608.html

Writer:  Elizabeth K. Gardner, 765-494-2081, ekgardner@purdue.edu

Sources:   Marc Loudon, 765-494-1462, loudonm@purdue.edu

                    David Sanders, 765-494-6453, retrovir@purdue.edu

                    Jean Chmielewski, 765-494-0135, chml@purdue.edu

                    Christine Hrycyna, 765-494-7322, hrycyna@purdue.edu