One of the risks one takes in reading a book about teaching innovations is that envy will set in — as in “What a great idea! I wish my institution could do something like that!” This collection of reports on innovative courses and experiences combining mathematics and biology has certainly stirred up that response in me. There are a lot of fascinating ideas and new course possibilities being pursued at the colleges and universities represented in this collection, and anyone drawn to interesting ideas that connect these two subjects is likely to find something attractive here.
At the same time, there’s another risk, that this kind of collection will simply consist of what I call “We did this, it worked great, everyone go do it” reports, where the successes are rightly trumpeted and the missteps and false starts (which are often the most fascinating part of any course development experience) are downplayed. That does not happen here. Some of the more interesting reports were in the Processes section and dealt with programs that faced serious obstacles, such as a program at Iowa State University that struggled to endure after its founding faculty moved on and one at Bates College that was recreated by a collaboration with nearby colleges. It is important to remember that curriculum innovation — like mathematics itself — does not always move relentlessly forward.
As one might expect, a lot of the ideas presented in this volume focus on calculus for life science students. Since mathematics does not stop at calculus, there are, in addition, several case studies that address statistics courses for biology, including careful attention to the question of how real data may be wisely incorporated into combined or hybrid courses. Finally, and perhaps most intriguingly, there are a number of interesting ideas for what can be done on the other side of calculus: in linear algebra, bioinformatics, and biomedical research, for example.
Since the Math & Bio 2010 report (copyright 2005) is now part of history rather than a look at a possible future, it is appropriate that the question of meaningful collaborations between mathematics and biology be revisited, and this book does an excellent job of bringing new ideas to the mathematical community. One can only hope that biologists who are interested in these issues will also find this book, and some valuable ideas contained in it.
Mark Bollman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is professor of mathematics and chair of the department of mathematics and computer science at Albion College in Michigan. His mathematical interests include number theory, probability, and geometry. Mark’s claim to be the only Project NExT fellow (Forest dot, 2002) who has taught both English composition and organic chemistry to college students has not, to his knowledge, been successfully contradicted. If it ever is, he is sure that his experience teaching introductory geology will break the deadlock.