NEXUS is part of an increasingly active national conversation about how best to teach undergraduate science. The project brings together four universities with an ambitious goal: create and share effective models for teaching interdisciplinary science. Working together, the universities will create new courses, course modules and ways of assessing how well they work, as part of a four-year, $1.8 million commitment from HHMI.

Purdue professors guide science curriculum changes

A group of Purdue University professors is part of a national project to redesign undergraduate curriculums to better prepare students for medical school qualifying exams and higher-level courses in biology, physics and chemistry.

The goal is to revamp how biological sciences are taught by injecting relevant topics into the classroom experience and tossing out less applicable matter.

"The time to do this has come," said Jean Chmielewski, a distinguished chemistry professor. "There will be some push back. People are reluctant to make decisions of what will be left out of courses, but this is going to better prepare students. That's what we want."

Purdue is part of a team of four universities taking part in National Experiment in Undergraduate Science Education, or NEXUS. Purdue is revising the introductory chemistry courses to include more biological chemistry for NEXUS and on the West Lafayette campus.

Howard Hughes Medical Institute is funding the $1.8 million project over four years to develop resources for a national basic science curriculum for pre-medical and pre-health students. The new curriculum plans are to better prepare students to become interdisciplinary scientists and clinicians and in anticipation of changes to the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, expected in 2015.

Earlier this year, the Association of American Medical Colleges made preliminary recommendations for a new version of the test, including the addition of a behavioral and social sciences section and an update of the natural sciences section.

The National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science and National Science Foundation have released reports calling for changes on how interdisciplinary undergraduate biology is taught.

Chmielewski, who teaches organic chemistry courses to pre-med, pre-veterinary and other students, said curriculum has been somewhat held back by what the MCAT has covered.

Expected changes to the exam will allow her to update organic chemistry material related to the medical field and prepare students for higher-division courses. "We are really hoping to take a different approach," she said.

Purdue joins University of Maryland, Baltimore County; the University of Maryland, College Park; and the University of Miami to collaborate on the project. Each school is designing a different aspect of the curriculum.

"We are asking these four schools to do something hard, which is come up with a product that is greater than the sum of the parts," said David J. Asai, Howard Hughes Medical Institute's director of precollege and undergraduate education. "I think it can be challenging for any college or university to decide whether to make changes to their curriculum, and we can alleviate that by paying real attention to the assessment."

The four NEXUS schools also will create modules that can be dropped into an existing course for smaller schools that might have less course offerings.

David Sanders, associate professor of biological sciences, is working with the Purdue team on the biology portions of the curriculum.

"We are concerned what students are currently learning is not viable for modern biology," he said. To change that, the curriculum will become competency based, rather than course based, Sanders said. That includes students taking biochemistry in the first two years of their program instead of the third or fourth year.

"We are not watering this down," he said. "This is rigorous."

The team also includes Christine Hrycyna, an associate professor of chemistry, who is working on general chemistry course for pre-pharmacy students, and Marc Loudon, a medicinal chemistry professor and Purdue coordinator for the project.

So much change does call for some concern, Sanders said, especially for schools that serve minority students.

"We are soliciting feedback to make sure I understand the challenges other schools face," he said. Universities can choose to adopt the new curriculum once the NEXUS program is completed.

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