With fear and trepidation we began planning a one-semester course called Bio 150: Introduction to Biological Inquiry. Each of us in the department would design a section of Bio 150 that focused on a specific research area. Each section would teach students the bare minimum needed to get started on a real scientific question. The students would be shown how to perform a few techniques, how to search for and read scientific articles, and how to distinguish a good scientific question from a not-so-good question. Finally, working in groups of three (we had previously discovered that three was the magic number for group work), the students would choose a question, design and carry-out experiments to answer the question, and then present their results and an interpretation of their results in formats appropriate for the discipline.My first reaction was that this can't be done. Without first learning the fundamentals of biology, you can't do research in it. But if they show us at Grinnell that it can be done, then it can. And they did. Students and professors are apparently both very happy with it. Students either find out early that biology isn't for them, or they get hooked, and eagerly learn all the facts and theories, because now they see why that's important.
Our first set of Bio 150 sections were announced in the fall of 2000. Students could choose one (and only one) of the following seven sections: “Building an Animal,” “Prairie restoration,” “The Language of Neurons,” “Biological Responses to Stress,” “Emerging and Re-emerging Pathogens,” “The Effects of Climate Change on Organisms,” and “What Does it Mean to be a Plant?” Since then, we have added a few more sections to our repertoire, including “Sex Life of Plants,” “Plant Genetics and the Environment,” “Survivor,” “Cell Fate: Calvin or Hobbes,” “Genes, Drugs and Toxins,” and “Animal Locomotion.”
Besides, the truth is that I entered biology the very same way. I had a degree in physics, and then started a Ph.D. program without ever having taken a course in biology. (You could argue that explains a lot.) The standing joke while I was at UCSB was that "I haven't actually taken any biology courses, but I have taught several." I started research from day one, and have been filling in the missing holes in my knowledge ever since. I still work at that. I often say (it's not a joke) that I got my bio undergrad by reading Natural History (the print version) for a few years. I still read it every month, though the revelations are now farther in between.
On the other hand, one could argue that not everyone is taking biology because they want to do research in it. There are pre-meds, for example, who needs the credit so they can become physicians. I wonder if they have many of those at Grinnell...