About 10 years ago, Alan Garfinkel, a professor in the life sciences department at the University of California, Los Angeles, got a call. It was from his dean, who said that the department had inspected their freshman calculus course, “Calculus for Life Sciences.”
The results of the internal review weren’t so grand, showing that the class was “absolutely worthless,” Garfinkel says. Unpopular with students, the class didn’t seem to be preparing them for a career in STEM. And the class seemed to be filtering out women and minorities from progressing in the department.
That call started the years-long process of reworking how the university’s life sciences department teaches math. This ultimately led to a new introductory life sciences math course, Mathematics for Life Sciences (the LS 30 series).
The need for biology students to understand math concepts has become increasingly important, especially with the digital revolution sweeping across science. But UCLA professors felt that the traditional math curriculum was uninspiring to students and that the classes offered few useful examples from actual biology, according to a presentation prepared by members of the university that EdSurge reviewed. The old ways of teaching seemed to leave students without an understanding of the importance of math for their chosen field.
The department started teaching its new math series for life sciences in 2013, in a pilot course with around 20 students. Faculty had to overcome obstacles to even get there, including the lack of an official textbook and initial skepticism from colleagues in the math department, says Blaire Van Valkenburgh, who at the time was an associate dean of the department and was leading the reform effort.
But in the end, the results almost beggared belief, according to those at the college.
Chiefly, students seemed to appreciate the effort, and LS 30 has shown steady growth over the past five years, according to figures cited in a study published in February 2022. Today, Garfinkel estimates that it’s taught to about 2,000 students per year at the large public university. The students have voted with their feet, Van Valkenburgh adds.
The math department was impressed with the student reaction to the new course, especially the kind of glowing student reviews “that we don’t get in normal math courses,” says Don Blasius, a professor of mathematics at UCLA with knowledge of the life sciences math revamp.
A lot of those students are people who might not have stuck it out in STEM, according to the study. Those figures claim that, using the numbers available at publication, 72 percent of the students enrolled in the class are female, with 31 percent from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds and 32 percent from groups that aren’t well represented in STEM.
A Barrier to STEM?
To Garfinkel, the change represents a successful example of reforming the math curriculum, one that both lifted a barrier to STEM careers and grounded math teaching in practical examples.
Although science, technology, engineering and math fields have seen some progress in recent years, STEM remains relatively non-diverse. Figures from Pew Research Center indicate that Black and Hispanic workers and students are vastly underrepresented in STEM occupations and education programs. And while women are the majority of workers in health-related jobs, as of last year, they’re less present in the physical sciences or, say, engineering. On the current trajectory, the Pew researchers argue, it’s unlikely that STEM degree attainment will alter this.
Many leaders in the field want to change these statistics. The UCLA efforts were supported, in part, by a grant from the National Science Foundation, according to documents provided to EdSurge by members of the team that spearheaded the overhaul.
At least partly, the UCLA program’s success has been attributed to the fact that it cut the department’s calculus prerequisites, which proponents of the LS 30 course characterize as “weed out” measures.
The traditional calculus coursework, to people like Garfinkel, is totally outdated. It’s about memorizing formulas and using paper-and-pencil techniques that, in his view, haven’t been cutting edge in this century. And it’s a large factor, he says, that pushes minorities and women out of STEM, because they may have had less experience in traditional math before arriving at college.
Instead, LS 30 focused on modeling that’s grounded in biological examples—like understanding the feedback dynamics of shark-tuna populations. It assumes no background in calculus and it limits its teaching to the programming and math concepts that are necessary for practical modeling.
Ultimately, argues Van Valkenburgh, the new program seems to have instilled confidence in students about their quantitative skills, as well as motivated them to pick those skills up by grounding lessons in problems they cared about solving. In short, it also helped to answer that commonly asked “why even bother learning this?” question.
Van Valkenburgh, who recently retired, reflects that advancing the course was “probably the most important [non-academic] thing I did.”
Changing the Calculus
A number of other universities have expressed interest in following UCLA’s lead, according to Garfinkel. And the University of Arizona, Tucson, another public school, now teaches a version of LS 30.
But ultimately, change in how math is taught has proven slow.
High schools in general seem reluctant to change, Garfinkel says, because of college entrance requirements. Meanwhile, colleges point toward the AP calculus that gets taught to high schools to explain why they won’t change freshman calculus courses.
“So we think we have to hit both levels simultaneously,” Garfinkel adds.
Toward that end, he’s working with Brendan Kelly, the director of introductory math at Harvard, to offer a similar course to high school students this year in Harvard’s summer school program, a couple-week-long series for students to get exposure to higher learning. But it’s unclear how much funding they’ll manage to get for the program, he says.
Another factor? Not everyone is on board with upending how math is taught. Disagreement about this is playing out publicly as the California board of education reevaluates the state’s K-12 math framework.
While praising the LS 30 course for engaging students in math, Mario Bonk, the current chair of the math department at UCLA, suggests that he has “serious misgivings” about exporting the model to colleges across the country because the content of the course is incredibly specific to biology. If these students decide later on that the life sciences track isn’t for them, they would be seriously underprepared for anything else, Bonk says.
Ultimately, for Bonk, it’s not a model that all departments should necessarily follow. But it does underline the need to bring math instruction into the 21st century. Importing real-life examples into calculus is a good idea—one that can inspire students to engage with math, Bonk says. Bringing in basic programming skills into the coursework is also a good idea. But, he adds, for learning to understand math—“the universal language of the universe”—pulling it out of the math department isn’t ideal. In short, he argues, the course seems exceptional at teaching biological modeling, but it’s less stellar at teaching the abstract principles of math.
Others take issue with the broader math reform approach in general, charging that it’s not nearly as rigorous. For instance, Barbara Oakley, the outspoken professor of engineering at Oakland University, has argued that reforming math curriculum tends to disadvantage students. According to Oakley, these reforms tend to deemphasize habitual practice—such as drilling times tables—which she argues denies students fluency with numbers.
It’s an imputation that doesn’t seem to sway Garfinkel. “I completely disagree with the idea that what is needed is what they call ‘rigorous,’” Garfinkel says, stressing that his own course has no calculus prerequisites and yet is able to successfully tackle biological modeling problems.