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Wednesday, Dec 6, 2023
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Biology department announces substantial changes in curriculum, including new courses and programming software

Dr. Amy Wiles (left), assistant chair of the Mercer Biology Department and Dr. Craig Byron (right), Chair of the Mercer Biology Department have spearheaded significant changes to the program this year.
Dr. Amy Wiles (left), assistant chair of the Mercer Biology Department and Dr. Craig Byron (right), Chair of the Mercer Biology Department have spearheaded significant changes to the program this year.

Mercer’s biology department recently unveiled a new curriculum for the undergraduate biology major. The transition includes modifications of many introductory and intermediate level biology classes, the addition of new courses, the implementation of a programming component for several labs and changes in the course load for biology and biochemistry majors.

According to Dr. Amy Wiles, assistant chair of the biology department, one of the challenges with the old pathway was the immense course load biology majors faced after their first year at Mercer.

“We really wanted to decompress it,” Wiles said. “We really had a compressed curriculum, which meant if you got behind, or if you were coming in as a transfer student, you just weren’t as prepared.” 

The new curriculum converted the introductory level biology course from a 200-level course worth five credit hours to a 100-level course worth four hours. Decreasing the difficulty of the first set of courses also removed the prerequisite for general chemistry. These changes mean students take a more spread-out version of the previous introductory biology course during their first year at Mercer. Also, biology majors must now take genetics and a new course called "Comparative Plant and Animal Physiology" before they progress to upper-level biology courses. 

The upper-level courses saw changes as well. The introduction of pathways of specialization in the three pillars of biology will be taught as cell and molecular biology, organismal and physiological biology and evolution and ecology. Each biology major will be required to take one class in each pillar before they can take classes based on their own scientific interest. A “Biology and Society” class is also being introduced. 

The biology department also started implementing lessons in the computer program “R” in labs. R is an industry-standard, open-source coding software often used in biological research. According to Dr. Wiles, having experience with the software will prepare students for careers in the field.

“If you go out and do biological research, there is a really good chance you are going to be using R,” Wiles said.

This change had mixed reactions from students, especially first years. Mae Lin ‘27 initially struggled with the data science assignments but said they became more manageable over time.

“At first, I absolutely hated R, I didn’t want anything to do with it,” Lin said. 

According to Karisha Khadayat ‘27, the amount of difficulty students have with R depends on their level of coding experience, noting that she had more ease thanks to completing computer science classes at her high school.

Khadayat also noted that it can be difficult to find help from people skilled in the R software, as most older biology students have little-to-no experience with the programming language.

The biology department plans on using a scaffolding approach to the R program to help students overcome the learning curve of the programming language, so the data science assignments can increase in difficulty as students progress through courses. Overall, the department hopes the changes will make it easier for new students entering the major and better prepare them for research in the field. 


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