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Alternative Routes to Quantitative Literacy for the Life Sciences

Supported by the National Science Foundation through Award DUE-9752339 to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Project Dates: August 1, 1998 - July 31, 2000
Principal Investigator: Louis J. Gross
Co-Principal Investigators: Beth C. Mullin and Susan E. Riechert
Collaborators: Otto J. Schwarz, Monica Beals, Susan Harrell

The objective of this project was to start the process of enhancing the quantitative components of many undergraduate life science courses by focusing on the general biology sequence taken by science students. The project efforts illustrated to students the importance of a diversity of quantitative tools to analyze life science problems, emphasize the utility of quantitative methods across the spectrum of life sciences, serve to reduce the perception by students that math is only needed for math courses, and enhance students appreciation for the importance of theory in the scientific process. The objectives were met through development of appropriate quantitative examples, based upon data and illustrating key biological concepts, for entry-level biology courses. Dissemination of results has proceeded through publication of a Primer of Quantitative Biology and a variety of web-based products.

Project Products:

  • Poster providing an overview of the project results, particularly as they relate to quantitative competency testing in general biology courses: Improving the quantitative skills of life science students through General Biology reform
  • Draft collection of general biology modules for improving the quantitative skills of undergraduate biology students: Draft Module Collection, composed by Susan Harrell, Monica Beals and Louis Gross
  • Sample competency exams for assessing the quantitative skills of undergraduate biology students entering the general biology sequence. We suggest that it is appropriate to follow the Competency Test procedure developed at the University of Nevada at Reno through its Mathematics Across the Curriculum Project. See their Home Page for details on Competency Testing. This involves giving a simple test at the very beginning of each course, including questions of a quantitative nature and dealing with biological topics related to those in the course. The mathematical level of the test is at the level that an instructor would expect each student to have prior to taking the course, and the student would have to pass this exam with a very high grade before being given a passing grade in the course. The goals here are to: (i) inform students at the beginning of a course exactly what types of math they are expected to already be able to do; (ii) help students be informed about exactly what concepts they don't have a grasp of, so they can go back and refresh their memory; and (iii) ensure that the class is not held back through having to review material that the students should know upon entering. For results of the first round of competency exams given to general biology students, see the above poster.
         Sample Competency Exam 1
         Sample Competency Exam 2
    We have utilized the competency tests in numerous offerings of the two general biology courses for Biology majors offered here: Cell Biology and Biodiversity. A complete report on the results of these evaluations is here.
  • Lab Manual Appendix. A statistical and mathematical appendix to the lab manual for the Cell Biology portion of the general biology sequence at the University of Tennessee was constructed to ease the use of these methods within lab sections. Lab instructors can refer students to these sections for the many lab projects which require the use of basic statistics and math. Included are biological examples of applications of the methods discussed. Written by Susan Harrell as a supplement to the Lab manual composed by Dr. Otto Schwarz and used by approximately 1000 students per year at UT.

Other Resources Maintained Here:

Short courses organized by us:

Resources for Mathematics Education for Biology students

Pages devoted to General Biology Education

Quantitative Curriculum for Life Science Students

Mathematics Archives Life Science Collection

This page is maintained by Louis Gross. If there are questions or comments regarding this page, please contact him at

Return to L. Gross Home Page

Last Modified: October 7, 2003