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Gravitas Publications’ teaching materials put a great deal of emphasis on relating scientific facts and concepts to students’ everyday life and to other courses of study. A December 2009 article on the Website of Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) presented in detail how one professor successfully brought that teaching model into her college classroom.

Even though HHMI professor Catherine Drennan teaches introductory chemistry to roughly 200 students at MIT, she had been a student who did not enjoy chemistry at all in high school. The article describes how she is changing the perception of chemistry for her students:

Drennan discovered that many of the MIT freshmen she encountered harbored similar reservations about chemistry. “I talk quite openly about it in class,” she says. “I tell my students, you may not have discovered your love for chemistry yet, but I’m going to show you how it is applicable.”

She hopes that by showing her students how chemistry is related to other disciplines she can help them become better doctors or engineers or maybe even chemists.

While scientific research increasingly takes place at the interface of disciplines, most undergraduate classes are still taught within the confines of traditional science fields: physics, chemistry, biology. As a result, students often view disciplines as separate and unrelated.

So Drennan and her co-instructor developed examples and problem sets that “link specific chemistry lecture topics to biology. One example is electron exchange of oxidation/reduction reactions, a common introductory chemistry topic, and its link to the activation of vitamin B12 in the body. Hamilos’ favorite example relates to the wave-particle duality of light and matter, which Drennan and Taylor explained through quantum dot nanoparticles, small semiconductors that emit light when excited by UV radiation. They then showed how quantum dots can be used to help create images of tumors.”

Education researchers at MIT’s Teaching and Learning Laboratory found that there was a statistically significant increase in student satisfaction with the course after the introduction of the cross-disciplinary examples in the lectures.

The Website article quotes researcher Rudy Mitchell on another impressive result:

“Even more interesting was the student attendance in the course,” Mitchell says. “Large lecture classes often suffer from poor attendance. But 85 percent of students reported attending 90 percent or more of the lectures. That’s unheard of in a lecture with 200 students, and it speaks to how enthusiastic the students are about the course.”

At Gravitas, this sort of cross-connection is made not only in student texts and laboratory workbooks, but it is also the basis for the Kogs-4-KidsTM series that relates chemistry topics to language, arts, technology, history,  critical thinking and philosophy.


Just last month, the University of New Mexico Cancer Center issued a news release announcing that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has selected a research team at the University of New Mexico Cancer Center to lead the tenth National Center for Systems Biology in the U.S. with a five-year, $14.5 million grant:

“This grant will bring together people from many different disciplines and backgrounds, including biologists, engineers, mathematicians and physicists at UNM, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories,” said Janet Oliver, PhD and principal investigator of the new center, called the New Mexico Spatiotemporal Modeling Center (STMC). “Together, we expect to develop the new tools needed to understand the dynamic biochemical and spatial events that control the behavior of immune and cancer cells.”

It is helpful for home school parents and teachers to be aware of this relatively new method of scientific investigation and medical research. Systems biology is an emerging interdisciplinary field that joins biology, mathematics, engineering and the physical sciences. Using experimental and computational approaches, it builds on existing knowledge of genetic and molecular functions to study and understand biological processes in cells, tissues and organisms.

Readers of Gravitas’ blogs and articles already know that Gravitas promotes “interdisciplinary” approaches to learning. That is why the Kogs-4-Kids™ series links chemistry with other subjects such as history, philosophy and technology. We believe this promotes enhanced critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as better learning by repetition in various contexts and linking facts to real world situations. The announcement of this tenth systems biology center validates that our students need to be versed in interdisciplinary understanding.

The systems perspective brings an engineering paradigm into the science of biology to study the complex design of living things. In many ways, it is a new biology that will add much to our knowledge base, much as quantum physics extended the field of nuclear physics.

This is also a good example for children of how working scientists discover new facts and then put them into practical use, perhaps in this case producing new treatments or even cures for diseases such as cancer.