New Topics for College Biology

Biology has advanced rapidly on several frontiers in the past couple of decades. Yet, most of these advances have not found their way into our UG and PG syllabi.

With most Universities and Colleges now subscribing to a CBCS (Choice Based Credit System) curriculum, the time is right to share and explore new topics to teach.

We invite researchers and teachers to share their ideas, experiences, and plans to teach new concepts, facts, and skills to their UG and PG students.

Please share with us the names of topics you have started teaching recently and/or would like to teach, and resources (research papers, reviews, etc.) that can be used to design and implement lesson plans.

I think one of the crucial elements is going to be INTEGRATING new topics with what’s already in the syllabus, lest we end up with bloated syllabus – something we are seeing already at various levels of Biology curriculum.
Thoughts/inputs/examples of how to do that? @cvaravindhan @SwatiPatankar

That is true: We have to trim out some “older” topics in order to accommodate new ones. I have found that there is often a lot of time allocated to ‘history of science’ (which is basically a list of dates and scientists and their discoveries/inventions). One way to keep the syllabus focused is to list the topics hour-wise: this will guide a teacher to spend a defined period of time on a topic.

I would love to see epigenetics, nuclear architecture, and genome engineering find some space in mol biol / genetics.

Teaching of Biology has greatly suffered in recent decades due to over-emphasis on the so-called molecular biology and biotechnology. It is high time that this disbalance is corrected. Biology is the most dynamic discipline, not only because the living systems evolve but also because with the availability of more extensive and penetrating research tools and approaches,our understanding about the living systems too continues to evolve rater rapidly. This obviously poses serious dilemma to the syllabus designers and to the teachers. The major problem actually stems from the fact that teachers try to provide as much “recent information” as they can and since the time remains limited, the students suffer ‘information overload’ and, at the same time, many of the fundamental and core Biology topics get ignored. Result is that students come out with some information about ‘latest’ developments (mostly about techniques) but without understanding of the basic principles…

In order to understand living systems, any curriculum should include, as core topics, diversity of living systems (not as rote memory, but as a consequence of evlution and adaptation), basics of cell biology, genetics, evolution, developmental biology, ecology, physiology etc. The more specialized topics should be built as a pyramid on these basic core subjects and thse can be selected by students as per their choices and the opportunities available at the given college/university…

Biology students must not be deprived of learning Physics, Maths etc, as happens in most of our university and college curricula. Likewise, the Physics and Maths students must also have opportunities to learn basics of biology…

Teaching should act only as a ‘primer’ rather than ‘template’ or ‘polymerase’ so that students get the concepts in classroom,get excited and find out the relevant information on their own (teachers can help them, again, only by showing the path, to where the information may be available). This would promote the basics of research to learn what is known. Likewise, in the laboratory, besides exercises which provide pportunities for learning the use basic methods and equipment, there should be more ‘open-ended’ exercises where the answer remains unknown, and therefore, stimulate students’ thinking and analysis powers.Some of these can also become research projects at their level. The common practice of involving under-graduate students in a research being carried out in the teacher’s lab is not always the best practice as the students only get to use some techniques wihtout understanding the underlying whys and hows.

Teaching and learning at under-graduate level (B.Sc.) should, in my view, never become specialized. This is where 4- or 5-year integrated degree courses become more useful since the students can continue to learn in a pyramidal manner rather than starting their M.Sc. learning again from ground ‘zero’ and thus lose their interest and valuable time.

In this way our PG program is very good. I did my MSc in Biomedical genetics at University of Madras (97-99) and finally ended joining the same Dept as Asst Prof after 15 yrs. Even in those days the syllabub was very well structured and well focused. We had prokaryotic genetics, cell biology, structural biology and cytogenetics in the 1st semester; molecular genetic, eukaryotic genetics, biochemical genetics, in the 2nd semester; gene therapy, cancer genetics, population genetics and prenatal diagnosis
in the 3rd semester and environmental genetics, developmental genetics and recombinant DNA technology in the 4th semester. As you can see almost all the subjects were on genetics. But we also had immunology, biostatistics and endocrinology as ancillary subjects to have a flavor of other subjects. So overall the course was pretty much focus but also gave a broad base. Even after 20yrs we still haven’t changed the courses but have updated the sylabus. Like, I take gene therapy and developmental genetics. In gene therapy, I have included immunogenetherapy and in DG I have included almost all the developmental signal transduction pathways. Of course we lag behind with respect to practicals due to poor infrastructure and lack of funding. But still I am trying to improvise that component also. Previously, every year atleast one or two of BMG students used to clear CSIR. Now, there is a steady decline because the class toppers go in for greener fields and are no longer are interested in biology. Of course that is a different story altogether.

One of the reasons for students losing interest in biology is the absence of engaging and creative classroom laboratory exercises. We do need improvements in infrastructure but infrastructure is not the only thing that is preventing good lab experience. Teachers too need to get involved and find out alternate and simpler methods to engage students. Many of the toppers also may then find it interesting. And, as I stated before, too much of empahsis on molecular biology without a base in biology is inappropriate.
We need to keep our efforts on…

Do you think part of the problem is relevance, of syllabus items? May be it is that we need not just syllabus items to be updated, but also relevant…
By ‘relevance’ I mean - are we answering for students “why they need to know this”…? Anything that connects the academic knowledge to life-outside-classroom. This could involve using published papers in the class, field visits when possible, etc…
What do you think?
@vsjonn @AKChalla …?

Relevance of syllabus is something we think about a lot at IIT Bombay. We do have syllabus reviews every 2-3 years and add and remove courses. We also take feedback from the students and find that they want courses in “Tissue engineering” and “Mammalian cell culture” because they think these will get them jobs in industry. In contrast, many faculty feel that when the students have a good foundation in the basics, are taught to think critically and are open to new concepts and topics, then they can pick up newer areas themselves as required.

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I completely agree with the idea that biology syllabus in UG and PG level should be such that they create interest in the students. I would suggest a few points that can be tried so that we can achieve the goal of the topic of this discussion:

  1. In many colleges and universities, the syllabus remains the same, as it used to be 10-15 years back (not a considerable change). Syllabus should be reshuffled and updated, say, every 5-7 years.

  2. teachers are still engaged in teaching, glycolysis, for years and generation. But I do not think any teacher teaches the medical importance of glycolysis. Even that not only human glycolysis exists. The cycle is also found in other organisms.

  3. Biological science often takes a great leap in a decade. So, syllabus and faculty updation is very necessary.

  4. Very less emphasis is given on practicals in UG levels. This tendency should be changed.

  5. Students should be taught to question as much as possible. This would lead to brain storming.

  6. Dependency on notes should be avoided and students should be encouraged to read books. There is no alternative to the basic knowledge provided in good books.

  7. If you see the medical and pharmacy education in India, the subjects and syllabus are same throughout India. This is lacking in the biology (or biotechnology) syllabus in all the colleges. Same syllabus in all colleges would help students and faculties of different colleges interact with each other.

  8. Faculties should try to tell the reasons behind the things in biology, if so. Most students believe that biology doesn’t need concept, only needs mugging-up the facts. That is definitely not the case.

Some of the topics that I suggest are Stem cell technology, Tissue engineering, Pharmacology, Physiology, Proteomics and Analytical techniques.

Thanks & Regards,

Ashwini Kumar

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Indeed the syllabus needs to be relevant to modern day activities of a scientist. The curriculum should impart domain knowledge and skills necessary for the next phase in a student’s life – be it a job or further study/research. That is why the syllabus should be updated regularly to enable a student to be globally (or at least nationally) competitive.

Thank you for the suggestions of stem cell biology, tissue engineering, proteomics, etc. They are indeed essential for a student to think about solving challenges in biology.

In most courses, molecular biology is just one paper out of 4 (B.Sc.) or 16 (M.Sc). It is essential to understand the structures of macromolecules and replication, transcription, and translation because it lays the foundation for understanding the action of various drugs and the modes of regulation of gene expression. A syllabus without molecular biology would be incomplete – these topics are taught at every stage (with increasing detail) from the +2 stage.

I may not have explained sufficiently- I do not mean that molecular biology should not be taught. It must be. My point is that teaching molecular biology without a base in biology is not good. Consequence of such learning is that students may know about PCR but fail to connect it with the process of DNA replication per se. Likewise, they may learn bar-coding without knowing that this is not the only way of identifying species/races etc.Often they learn the jargon of genomics without knowing genetics. Integration of knowledge at all levels is needed. Equally important aspect is to let students become conscious of the unity (molecular biology principles) in diversity of living systems. This is where fundamentals of evolution, adaptation and biological diversity become critical.for integration with molecular biology. The extremely reductioninst approach that molecular biology has often taken in the past resulted in the belief that 98% of our genome is selfish. With a wider perspective now being appreciated, it is becoming clear that the concept of selfish DNA was too short-sighted. Students should be made aware of limitations of current thinking as well- then only they would begin to ask.

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I agree Sir.
Your explanation has given me an idea that instead of preparing the syllabus as a list of topics, we should present it as a web/net of interconnected principles, mechanisms, and applications. For example, the principle of DNA replication is semiconservative replication; the mechanisms (models) are rolling circle and theta for circular templates, and pan-handle, recombination-based, and internal-template based for linear molecules; and the applications are PCR and site-directed mutagenesis (using M13-like templates).
If you can spare the time, I would request you to help us build such connected syllabi.

About thinning down the syllabus
I generally find that in some of the units atleast the topics that are added simply do not allow the growth of the concept.They are there, just because they happen to be different and are treated systematically as independent topics. This increases the burden. For example once the general DNA replication mechanism is pitched in the syllabus, it need not be followed with other types of replications like Rolling Circle Model etc in detail with enzymes etc. Just touching on the mechanism in which the rolling circle is different from regular mechanism should be sufficient. In this way we can thin down the syllabus on factual details without compromising on the development of the mechanism itself and conceptual complexity.

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Most of the biology text books get outdated very fast. There has to be more up to date dynamic content based on the cutting edge knowledge to keep students up to date. For example if you are still teaching Sanger sequencing at the time when Next generation sequencing is pretty much the norm in the market, its a waste of time. As a second example, if you teach only copy paste cloning instead of new technologies like CRISPR or GeneArt cloning, the graduates come to the next phase of their career with 50 year old technologies.

Since many here commented about PCRs. Just how many course teach about Ampliseq technology where you can do a multiplex PCR with 25000 targets in a single tube.

Point being the curriculum should dynamically adapt and we should use online resources instead of old text books. Simply put the curriculum has to be setup with a “continuous improvement process”, a key in QM strategy.

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Excellent point.
We need a forum where professors and scientists can make recommendations about topics that should be “retired” or marked for reduced emphasis (like Maxam and Gilbert sequencing) and topics that must be included in a syllabus.
Ideally, it should happen every year, but as per current practices, it can be done every 2 years. That will be a huge service to our students.

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I agree!
It is not enough to make the syllabus as a list of topics; a time limit should be provided to guide the teacher regarding the depth to which the topic should be covered.
In this respect, an “outcome-based” syllabus would be very valuable, where it would say, for example: The student should be able to describe the differences between leading and lagging strand synthesis, and the functions of primase, polymerase, and ligase in DNA replication.

I completely agree that we need to keep our students updated about cutting edge technology. The pace with which molecular biology is progressing is astounding and we ourselves many times struggle to keep informed of the recent trend. I just want to observe that instead of thinking about doing away with the age old techniques or concepts we just need to keep and teach them with less emphasis concentrating only on their contribution towards the conceptual evolution. Any outdated technique might still be important because of its historicity. And recent advances in the technology mostly build on the essentials of an earlier technology. In this view we should put more emphasis on the basic concepts and treat them as primary preferential outcomes of teaching and as an introduction to a new technology per se. For example DNA complementarity can lead to DNA hybridisation to primer annnealing in PCR to Guide RNA annealing in CRISPR. Another thread can begin with endo nuclease to restriction enzymes to RISC in RNA interference and converge on Cas 9 of CRISPR. In our attempt to draw our syllabus as a map the older (and perhaps outdated techniques) may serve as roots to draw our threads and connectors


Indeed, it is the early, pioneering technologies that elucidated the principles on which later discoveries and inventions are made. We must connect the “old” with the “new”. As explained by Prof. Lakhotia, a good syllabus must show where the foundations for any idea or method lie. Your example of hybridization is excellent: while teaching this topic we should connect it not just to the Cot curves, but also to primer hybridization for PCR, guide RNA hybridization in RISC and CRISPR, and RNA editing.
Actually, constructing/updating a syllabus is the most important task in teaching, but in most places it does not get the attention it requires. :frowning: