A real-world science course

Anne Arundel Community College offers a class that combines biology basics with hotly debated issues, such as bioengineering.

Education Beat

News from Anne Arundel County schools and colleges

July 31, 2005|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Stem-cell research. Intelligent design. Cloning. End-of-life questions. Bioengineering of food.

These days, it seems as though it's impossible to turn on the television or open a newspaper without hearing some new hot topic that's really about biology. And the topics, so entwined with questions about religion, the environment and our own lives and deaths, tend to be highly emotional and divisive.

The debate about intelligent design, for example, has sparked heated controversies among educators with its goal of examining evolution through the prism of a higher being. The use of DNA analysis to determine whether a suspect is guilty or innocent has raised new questions about the criminal justice system. And questions about using medical advances to prolong life have become political lightning rods, as the Terri Schiavo case made clear in March.

Officials at Anne Arundel Community College have put together a course intended to give people a solid grounding in biology, so they can better grapple with these issues.

"Every day, there is stuff on TV and in the news that relates to basic concepts of biology that we would really like everyone to understand," said Sally Hornor, the professor who will lead the class. "We basically just started with: What are the really important questions?"

Hornor created the course with Stephen Ailstock, chairman of the biology department, but the effort involved collaboration from all 14 professors in the biology department, each with a different area of expertise.

Called Biology for the 21st Century, the program will be 15 weeks long, with students spending a week each on topics as diverse and relevant as bioterrorism, genocide, stem-cell research and bioengineering of food.

"We started with the intellectual framework of, given 90 hours, what is the biology everyone should know to be good citizens, to be well-informed," Ailstock said.

The class is not intended for biology majors, but rather for students who need to satisfy a general education requirement.

"We thought it would be nice to offer a course that was really for nonmajors," Hornor said.

But students should expect real science, not a daily "ripped from the headlines" debate about hot topics in the news.

"We didn't want one of these warm and fuzzy feel-good courses," he said.

Each week, first the science will be taught, and then the real-world applications will be explored, he said.

"It was not difficult at all to find a very relevant, contemporary application for each of the topics," Ailstock said.

"The course is so fantastic," said Trish Casey-Whiteman, associate vice president for learning at the college and chairwoman of the committee that evaluates course additions, deletions and modifications.

"The audience should be everybody, what the average good citizen, human being should know about biology," she said. "The course has a way of talking about current topics in science that's based in good foundational science."

Biology for the 21st Century, one of 47 new programs being offered at AACC this year, will be offered only online in the fall, but plans are under way to add a classroom offering in the spring, said Casey-Whiteman.

"We're not sure what the demand is going to be for the course, although we think it's going to be great."

Biology for the 21st Century has already undergone a trial run at the Naval Academy this summer, when Hornor taught it to students there, condensing the time frame to four weeks.

The reaction was positive, said Hornor, who will also be teaching the online class. Students were particularly interested in learning about biotechnology, she said, and in the "whole debate now between evolution and intelligent design."

"This is a course I would take," Casey-Whiteman said. "I'm not kidding - I would take it."

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