Adriano Marzullo and I are currently focusing on helping biology majors or graduates learn to use programming languages to do useful things of interest to them.
We are in the process of trying to discover a path through computational techniques and skills and biological knowledge that will prove helpful to students.
In our experience biology students do not get much exposure to computational languages and techniques, and little chance to develop computational skills relevant to biology.
At a more advanced level they might get some exposure to Python in a genomics course.
More likely, biology students will be heavily dependent on Excel or basic calculators for mathematical analyses.
Does it help biologists to take an introductory, and even more advanced, statistics class?
Could taking an introductory class in data science be helpful to a biology major?
We come from a perspective of empowerment and interest.
We are both annoyed at books that take a couple hundred pages to describe how R is a souped-up calculator (zippy do-dah: I can use R to calculate 2+3! Really?!) and present us with chapter after chapter on data types and aspects of the language for which we don’t, yet, see any point. The old, “suck it up and learn the preliminaries cause you’re gonna need them!” approach.
We both feel that young adults learn best when they take charge of their own learning. A teacher’s role then is more that of an experienced mentor and guide, a resource.
The major aspects of taking charge of one’s own learning in relation to computation in biology are:
- A meaningful personal project that is genuinely enhanced, or even made possible, by computation.
- Technical support in computational language terms, so that a student is empowered to carry a project to a satisfactory stage of completion.
Course syllabi, lists of topics to be learned, course learning outcomes all look pretty but are largely meaningless in terms of empowered and transformative learning.
What really counts is the inner motivation to work on an interesting project, and the availability and accessibility of technical mentoring to allow one to succeed.
All else is just quizzes, tests, and examinations, whose major outcome is a grade.
“The idea that the majority of students attend a university for an education independent of the degree and grades is a little hypocrisy everyone is happier not to expose. Occasionally some students do arrive for an education but rote and the mechanical nature of the institution soon converts them to a less idealistic attitude.” (Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values)