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Teacher Training in a Content-Oriented Biology Department

Marshall D. Sundberg


Undergraduate and science education departments should:

  • set high performance standards for science learning and teaching
  • include cell/molecular and organismal course work in core content
  • promote active learning through inquiry and investigation

October 2002

Note: Because some of the information in this article may be outdated, it has been archived.

Scientists may view science education as weak in content.

Improving the preparation of science teachers can strengthen the entire curriculum of a biology department.

In some institutions, a dichotomy has developed separating science from science education. This is most noticeable in schools where teacher training is moved out of the content department and into a department or college of education; but even where responsibility for teacher training is housed within a discipline, a “second class” status is often associated with the education curriculum. Furthermore, many biologists perceive that the “current trends” in science education weaken the content preparation of their students and this reinforces their negative attitude towards science education.

Science content and process can be integrated.

Teaching biology content and science process throughout the curriculum should be synergistic, not antagonistic. This article proposes ways that a biology department can contribute to more effective teacher training by integrating new approaches while improving student learning throughout the curriculum.

Integrating new approaches

Science as facts is being replaced by science as a way of knowing.

In recent years there has been a renewed push to emphasize the process of science (i.e., science as a way of knowing) in science teaching.2,6,8 This emphasis has grown from recognition of two factors:

  • Too many students view science as simply a collection of factoids to be memorized.
  • The fact-driven lecture style of teaching, with only multiple-choice examinations, reinforces students’ perception of science as a collection of known facts.
Understanding basic concepts of science is essential.

Simultaneously a “less is more” movement has grown among science educators. Numerous reports describe U.S. science education as “a mile wide and an inch deep” and suggest that a lack of depth of student understanding is due to our attempt to “cover” the breadth of facts in the discipline.1,12 Some of the work of me and my colleagues has demonstrated the efficacy of reducing the number of topics covered in a single course to improve students understanding of basic concepts in a single course.13

What content should be covered?

A teacher’s content knowledge relates directly to student achievement.

In June of 2002, the U.S. Department of Education produced a report that challenges current methods of teacher training and places a new charge on discipline-specific departments “… the only measurable teacher attributes that relate directly to improved student achievement are high verbal ability and solid content knowledge.”7 This reaffirms previous recommendations that scientific knowledge and educational pedagogy should be blended when it is presented to pre-service and in-service teachers.10

Given the breadth of biological science, what content should be covered?

A de facto biology core has developed which has remained remarkably consistent through the decades.4,5 This core includes:

  • cell/molecular biology
  • ecology
  • evolution
  • genetics
  • organismal biology

The major change during the past half century placed increasing emphasis on cell/molecular biology and the consequent reduction in organismal biology:

Cell/molecular biology and organismal biology are both important.
  • In the 1960s, half of a typical undergraduate core curriculum consisted of organismal-types of courses (including morphology, physiology, life histories, and taxonomy) and only one-quarter was cellular and molecular in emphasis.
  • Today this is reversed. Both cell/molecular biology and organismal biology are essential for teacher preparation, and a person can effectively argue that both are critical for all undergraduates. The biology core for all majors, pre-teaching and otherwise, should include both cell/molecular and organismal courses.

Cell/molecular and organismal biology

Molecular biology is the current trend in curricula.

The trend toward a molecular emphasis is most apparent at research institutions and selective colleges.

  • Molecular biology is modern, cutting-edge science and provides good funding opportunities for researchers and high market-place demand for students.
  • Molecular biology is expensive.

Colleges and universities are hiring many molecular biologists, and therefore it is not surprising that the biology curriculum now includes much more molecular biology than it did in the past. Prospective teachers must understand the fundamental concepts and techniques of cell and molecular biology to help their students

  • become informed citizenry, who increasingly face public issues related to genetic engineering, biotechnology, cloning, etc.
  • realize that molecular evidence provides some of the strongest support for evolution, a perennial hot-button topic in the school curriculum9

As college curricula increase their emphasis on cell/molecular topics, they simultaneously decrease coverage of organismal biology.

Studying organisms must remain a core part of biology curricula.
  • Organismal biologists are becoming an “endangered species” at many of those institutions with molecular emphasis.

  • At some schools, courses that examine the diversity of living things are disappearing from the biology curriculum.

  • The comprehensive universities and smaller colleges may become our primary resource for learning about organismal biology.

  • It is just as important for all students, but particularly for prospective teachers, to develop a strong organismal understanding. Even a molecular biologist benefits from an understanding of the biological perspective in which her/his system works.

  • An organismal diversity course in the core is the minimum content necessary to provide this perspective.

Living organisms engage students at all levels since:

  • They can be handled and manipulated with concrete, visible results.
  • There can be a direct relationship between the biology learned and care of pets and houseplants.
  • “A feeling for the organism,” as exemplified by Barbara McClintock, facilitates a better understanding of ecology and evolution as well as molecular genetics and development!
Lecturing can reinforce misconceptions about science being static.

The process of science: student-active learning

One of the great ironies of science education is that the public perceives science as a collection of static facts that one only has to identify and memorize, whereas scientists view science as constantly changing as new information accumulates and new techniques are developed. We perpetuate the former with the traditional, lecture-dominated teaching approach.

Students must realize science is a process of discovery.
  • Public perception of science as a process of discovery is one of the goals of the science education reform movement. This is as important a goal for our majors, particularly pre-professionals, as it is for pre-service teachers and non-majors. Most of us need only reflect upon our own experience of not learning how to think scientifically and “do science” until we were in graduate school. All of our students benefit when we teach the process of science, along with the core content, throughout their educational experience. Pre-service teachers will learn that to learn science is not to memorize, it is to do science. Biology majors will begin to hone their scientific skills at an earlier stage in their careers.
Learning science by doing science is active learning.
  • Melding content and process has an additional advantage. Teaching does not necessarily lead to learning, but the latter is an active process on the part of the learner. Inquiry and investigation are the hallmarks of effective teaching and student learning.3,11 Inquiry demands a foundation of prior knowledge (content) upon which to build; the teacher’s task is to discover the current level of student understanding to use as a starting point. Of course, inquiry and investigation are the hallmarks of the process of science, thus this pedagogical approach complements the goal of teaching “science as a way of knowing.” While some scientist may argue that the decrease in time spent on content coverage necessarily will decrease the amount of information students learn, this is not supported by data. As noted above, teaching students to think critically and to develop a depth of understanding of core concepts leads to greater student learning.13
A science education career is not a “safety net.”

Promoting high standards

A final example of the benefit of promoting teacher education in the discipline seems almost contrary to a common perception of education by scientists. This perception is that education is a field that attracts our less qualified students and serves as a “safety net” for those who will not make it into graduate school or another profession. In self-fulfillment, courses specifically designed for pre-service teachers may be less rigorous than those in the main stream of the core. Whatever the reality of this perception, there is currently a “push from the top” to reverse this perception.7

Both teachers and students should be challenged by rigorous standards.

“The most talented prospective teachers might also be discouraged by the lack of rigor of the courses offered in many schools of education.”7 The call is to challenge our pre-service teachers by raising their standards for achievement. This statement should serve as our call to reexamine our curricula and our level of expectation for all of our students.

  • One can argue that the performance standards we set for teachers should be even higher than those for the rest of our majors. This was certainly the case in the past (recall that Gregor Mendel did not pass his qualifying exams for teacher certification!)
  • By raising the bar for pre-service teachers, all of our students will be challenged and our standards will more accurately reflect the difference between adequate understanding and exceptional achievement.
Conclusion: Improved teaching and learning approaches can strengthen the science curriculum.


  • Undergraduate science and science education can be synergistic. Improving the preparation of science teachers can strengthen the entire curriculum of a biology department.
  • Core content should include both cell/molecular and organismal course work to provide an adequate foundation for advanced studies.
  • Student active learning, through inquiry and investigation, effectively teaches content and process.
  • Standards and expectations should be high, with support to help students achieve these goals.

Marshall D. Sundberg, Ph.D., is Professor and Chair of the Department of Biological Sciences, at Emporia State University, Kansas. He twice served on the Education Committee of the American Institute of Biological Sciences and continues to serve on the Education Committee of the Botanical Society of America. He has published extensively in plant morphology and development and science education.

Teacher Training in a Content-Oriented Biology Department

American Association for the Advancement of Science

AAAS is the home of “Project 2061,” including the Benchmarks for Science Literacy and Science for All Americans.

The National Academies

The National Academies brings together leaders in sciences, engineering, medicine, research, social science and education in order to serve as advisers to the nation. Studies in education at the National Academies include research into the use and interpretation of standardized test scores, applying educational research findings in the classroom, and improving education policy so that it is more firmly grounded in scientific research.

National Institute for Science Education (NISE)

Links to a number of useful resources including: College Level One Collaborative Learning Page, Secondary Teacher Education Project, Field Tested Learning Assessment Guide (FLAG), and others.


Produced by BIOSIS, this is a free web site offering resources for the life sciences information community. You can use information resources exclusively produced by BIOSIS, e.g., Nomenclature Glossary for Zoology, or find useful information collected from outside sources.

Read a book online

BIO2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists “provides a blueprint for bringing undergraduate biology education up to the speed of today’s research fast track.” It includes recommendations for teaching the next generation of life science investigators through such methods as interdisciplinary study, classroom laboratory experiments, and independent research (National Research Council, 2003).

Teaching High School Science Video Library

This video series will help new and veteran science teachers integrate national science standards and inquiry learning into their curricula. If you don’t wish to purchase the library and instruction manual, check for broadcast dates provided in the menu.

National Center for Science Education (NCSE)

Find out how you can defend the teaching of evolution in public schools.

Association of College and University Biology Educators (ACUBE)

Membership in this educational organization offers publications, conferences, meetings, and teaching resources.

National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT)

NABT provides regional and national meetings, teacher resources, and other useful information.

The Commission on Biology Education

This international organization is the education branch of IUBS (International Union of Biological Sciences) that aims to improve biology education at all levels worldwide. The site offers an extensive list of links to teacher training sites, classroom activities, and more.

This site offers a variety of resources for teachers, including:

  1. American Association for the Advancement of Science. 1989. Project 2061: Science for All Americans. Washington, D.C.: American Association for the Advancement of Science. Available online at:
  2. American Association for the Advancement of Science. 1990. The Liberal Art of Science: Agenda for Action. Washington, D.C.: American Association for the Advancement of Science.
  3. Boyer Commission. 1996. Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America’s Research Universities. Available online at:$File/boyer.txt
  4. CUEBS. 1967. Content of Core Curricula in Biology. Washington, D.C.: Commission on Undergraduate Education in Biological Sciences.
  5. Heppner, F., Hammen, C., Kass-Simon, G. and Krueger, W. 1990. “A de facto standardized curriculum for U.S. college biology and zoology.” BioScience 40 (2.:130-134)
  6. Moore, J. A. 1984 - 1988. Science as a Way of Knowing, Vol 1-6. Annual symposium of American Society of Zoologists.
  7. Paige, R. 2002. Meeting the Highly Qualified Teachers Challenge: The Secretary’s Annual Report on Teacher Quality. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Postsecondary Education. Available online at May 22, 2010 Link no longer available.
  8. National Academy of Sciences. 1995. National Science Education Standards. Washington, D.C.: National Committee on Science Education Standards and Assessment, National Research Council. Available online at:
  9. National Academy of Sciences. 1998. Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. Available online at:
  10. National Academy Press. 1999. Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology. Committee on Undergraduate Science Education, National Research Council. Available at:
  11. Olson, S. and Loucks-Horsley, S. (Eds.). 2000. Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards: A Guide for Teaching and Learning. Washington, D.C.: National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.
  12. Schmidt, W., McKnight, C. and Raizen, S. 1997. A Splintered Vision: An Investigation of U.S. Science and Mathematics Education. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  13. Sundberg, M.D., M.L. Dini and E. Li. 1994. “Improving student comprehension and attitudes in freshman biology by decreasing course content.” Jour. Res. Sci. Teach. 31:679-693.


Understanding Science