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Culture change

Measuring success: Increasing quantitative literacy in Biology

Teaching and Learning

By Kelly Foss

The Department of Biology at Memorial has a strong history of providing quantitative training opportunities to students.

Two women sit six feet apart in a lecture theatre
From left are Dr. Yolanda Wiersma and Dr. Amy Hurford.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

But demand for these skills has increased enormously with the advent of open data and programming software.

Dr. Amy Hurford is an associate professor jointly appointed in the Faculty of Science’s departments of Biology and Mathematics and Statistics. She is leading an effort to increase quantitative skills from first to fourth year in the biology curriculum.

“For a long time, we’ve been saying we should try to include more quantitative training components to our major,” she said. “Rather than making a dedicated course, we decided to infuse it throughout our curriculum.”

Key skills

The process began with a series of meetings within the department. They wanted to determine which skills undergraduates needed at different levels of the program and identify courses with space for new quantitative materials.

“What often happens for grad students is, they will go through their undergrad curriculum and when they start grad school the principal investigators will ask them about their quantitative skills,” said Dr. Hurford. “They will then either learn these skills on their own or teach them to each other.”

A woman with a black jacket, pink shirt, glasses and brown hair sits in a lecture theatre
Dr. Amy Hurford
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

But what exactly is quantitative analysis?

“It includes statistical analysis, but also data collection, curation, cleanup and visualization,” said Dr. Yolanda Wiersma, a biology professor. She includes quantitative analysis in her 4000-level courses.

“We decided to start in the first year, adding basic skills to our introductory biology courses. The idea is that we will now have a cohort that is going to move through the curriculum and build on these skills each year.”

The hope is, by the time these students get to her courses, she’ll be able to skip teaching introductory skills. Instead she’ll be able to include new information or expand into more complex areas.

Perfect opportunity

The move to online learning created an opportunity in the spring semester of 2020.

With assistance from Dr. Wiersma and PhD student and teaching assistant Joañy Mario, the group created an online resource guide for learning R software. They also created lab materials for the summer offering of Biology 1001.

They have since developed a second set of lab materials for Biology 1002, with help from graduate student and teaching assistant, Jake Prosser.

“The delivery of this would not have been possible without the support of biology lab instructors Ed Whelan, Valerie Power, Elizabeth Diegor and Fiona Cuthbert,” said Dr. Hurford.

“We’re also teaching these intangibles around peer support, which will benefit them in their other courses.” — Dr. Yolanda Wiersma

Mr. Whelan says they first taught students how to download the software and install it. Next, it was inputting code and getting an output, like a table or graph.

“The whole thing is set up in a way that it provides instant and positive feedback to students as they are working alone in their basement or at the kitchen table,” he said.

Changing the culture

The department members hope the way these new skills are being taught will also change the culture of how students work with each other.

“When researchers are doing coding, we’re constantly going to our peers in online forums when we get stuck,” said Dr. Wiersma. “We share our crappy code and ask for help fixing it. We’re trying to show students that’s part of how you do these methods. It’s okay to look for support.”

A woman with short grey hair in a cream sweater sits in a lecture theatre
Dr. Yolanda Wiersma
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

This past summer, they put a discussion thread on Brightspace and instructed students to ask each other for help when needed.

At first, students were slow to use it. This fall, however, the platform took off, with students even offering to get together to provide each other with support.

“I think there was an idea that this was cheating, or they were afraid to show they were struggling,” said Dr. Wiersma. “So, we’re also teaching these intangibles around peer support, which will benefit them in their other courses.”

More competitive graduates

The department believes these skills will prepare graduates for further research in advanced degrees. They will also make students more competitive in the job market.

“I’m seeing these skills asked for more and more in government scientist positions, for example,” said Dr. Wiersma. “There are many skills in biology – knowing how to dissect or pipette something or how to use a microscope. This is just another skill for their toolbox, but it’s one that translates across all branches of biology.”

The team is hoping to work with other instructors and teaching assistants in their department to continue adding quantitative analysis to other courses. They are interested in seeing how these skills may also translate to other departments.

“There’s a new master’s in data science program jointly developed by the departments of Computer Science and Mathematics and Statistics,” said Dr. Hurford. “If we can train biologists who can collaborate with other departments, then a better overall product will come out of their work.”

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