I shudder to think of the way I was taught about metabolic pathways as an undergrad. Lists of mysterious names connected by arrows - all to be memorized, with little reference to how the processes actually worked on a chemical basis...
Nick argues that traditionally, biology teaching has involved the study of "black box" processes - processes whose fundamental basis was unknown. Early teaching had to be superficial since so little was known about the underlying mechanisms of the processes described, but that over the years as our understanding of biological processes has evolved, basic teaching methods have not.
So far so good, and I'd broadly agree with this analysis. His suggested solution
is to follow the approach advocated by Jakubowski and Owen in a 1998 Journal of Chemical Education paper and an online textbook which starts with how small molecules give rise to biological structures. From structures they move to function, and finally to enzymatic reactions, signal transduction and energy.
Sounds like a great approach - if students see themselves as chemists - and our's don't. Yesterday I sat in a meeting where we discussed the reason why four first year physiology students had left because, from their point of view, there wasn't enough physiology in the first term of the first year of their degree. They weren't convinced by out point of view that all biology students needed a firm grounding in all areas of biology, including how biological molecules work, and that there would be plenty of physiology in the second term. In their
minds, they were physiologists who had come to university to study physiology.
They wanted Physiology (with a capital P) and they wanted it IMMEDIATELY.
So Jakubowski and Owen's ideas are nice in theory, but I'm not sure they will wash with the present generation of students.