Saturday, February 1, 2014

Mathematics for the Biological Sciences

MAA has just published a Notes volume, Undergraduate Mathematics for the Life Sciences: Models, Processes, and Directions [1] that provides examples and advice for mathematics departments that want to reach out to the growing population of biological science majors.

Biological science majors have replaced prospective engineers as the largest group of students taking regular Calculus I. From the MAA’s Calculus Survey [2], just over 28% of all students in mainstream Calculus I intend to pursue a major in the biological sciences, the largest single group of majors in this course. It is larger than engineers (just under 28%) or the combined physical science (7%), computer science (7%), and mathematical science majors (1%). For women in mainstream Calculus I, 42% intend a biological science major. For Black or Hispanic students, 34% are going into biological sciences. This dominance is certain to only increase. As the graph in Figure 1 illustrates, the growth in science, engineering, and mathematical sciences majors is occurring almost exclusively in the biological sciences.

Figure 1: Number of full-time entering freshmen who identified a STEM field as their most likely major. Data from The American Freshman surveys. [2]
Mathematics has done well by encouraging students who have to study mathematics to continue its study. Mathematics departments actually graduate more majors than the number of students who enter with the intention of pursuing a math major. In 2012, 18,842 students graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics.[3] Four years earlier, in 2008, only 11,583 entered a full-time program with the intention of majoring in mathematics.[4] Even after subtracting the roughly 5,000 students per year who are heading into K-12 mathematics teaching and who get a degree in mathematics but identify education as their intended field when they enter, we see that mathematics—uniquely among the major STEM disciplines—still has a net gain in majors. If we are to maintain this happy state of affairs, then we need to convince our audience that mathematics is relevant to its interests.

Mathematics departments are recognizing this fact. The 2010 CBMS report revealed that 41% of those at research universities had added interdisciplinary courses in mathematics and biology within the past five years. As the new MAA Notes volume illustrates, there is a tremendous amount of experimentation under way.

This volume begins with descriptions of thirteen programs that range from calculus for biology majors, to programs that draw calculus and statistics together into a year-long course, to bioinformatics, to research programs for biology majors that incorporate significant quantitative analysis. The institutions include large universities: Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Ohio State, and the Universities of Minnesota, Nebraska-Lincoln, and Utah. There also are smaller places: Benedictine University, Macalester College, University of Richmond, Chicago State, Sweet Briar College, University of Wisconsin-Stout, and East Tennessee State.

The volume continues with a collection of essays on “Processes.” These are nine accounts of the trials and tribulations of getting such a program started and keeping it going. This is particularly useful because these essays describe both programs that have survived, moving beyond the small group of individuals who initiated them, and programs that have failed or are failing, the ones that have not managed to establish themselves as a permanent feature of the local curriculum. The final four essays, labeled “Directions,” speak to opportunities and needs.

Unfortunately, this book is only available as a pdf file ($25) or as Print-on-Demand ($43), so you probably will not see a display copy at MAA meetings. But it is well worth checking out.


[1] Ledder, G., J.P. Carpenter, and T.D. Comar (Eds.) (2013). Undergraduate Mathematics for the Life Sciences: Models, Processes, and Directions. MAA Notes #81. Washington, DC: Mathematical Association of America.

[2] Higher Education Research Institute. (Multiple years). The American Freshman.

[3] NCES. (2013). Digest of Education Statistics. Table 322.10.

[4] Higher Education Research Institute. (2008). The American Freshman: National norms for fall 2008.