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Turn over a new leaf

Once thought of as a ‘boring’ subject by students, biology today has a buzz about it, thanks to its contribution to sustainable development, biomedical research and more...

education Updated: Feb 02, 2011 10:28 IST
K Muralidhar

The completion of Class 10 is a crucial stage in a student’s life when critical career-decisions have to be made. Often, this decision-making is reduced to choosing between science and commerce, between maths and biology, between professional courses and fundamental knowledge-based courses etc. Biology as a career probably is a student’s last choice. In fact, many take up biology by default. Why?

Many students believe it is easier to do engineering with or without an MBA degree instead of slogging in medicine. The years spent in formal education to become a successful doctor are definitely more than those for engineering. Students also think that unlike engineering or management, there are no professional lines available after studying biology. Entrance tests have become procedures for elimination.

Many students think biology is boring as it is much less conceptual than physical sciences and the examination pattern is unpredictable. Factual information occupies more space than guiding principles or concepts or laws. There is more description than problem-solving opportunities in biology than in physical or chemical sciences.

The problem, I think, is in the way the subject has been taught all these years in schools and undergraduate (UG) levels. Biology syllabi did not do justice to the true nature of today’s biology. Indeed, it has all components like intellectual challenge, excitement, relevance, professional avenues, conceptual back-up etc which students look for in their careers. Alterations in the curriculum and pedagogy have been undertaken at the high school and UG levels. All that’s needed was to make the content reflect the true nature of biology.

One thing that is necessary to realise is, biology is much more than just a route to medical education. To appreciate this, one must recognise the pattern of growth of biological thought over the last two millennia.

Biology is one of the three natural sciences, the other two being physics and chemistry. It was only during the Renaissance in Europe that a clear definition of science as an activity in the modern sense was given. Simply put, the aim of science was to understand the structure and functioning of nature. It was believed that natural phenomena obeyed certain laws. In the words of Prof. VV Raman, “the phenomenal world is an endless volume of cryptography that needs to be decoded” and natural scientists have to reveal these. Physicists succeeded in this endeavour. Chemists, on the other hand, believed that the universe’s composition in terms of elements and compounds and their interactions could explain many chemical phenomena of nature.

Biological phenomena were as baffling and mysterious as physical or chemical phenomena. While physicists and chemists depended on experimentation, biologists for the initial one thousand years only observed nature with the naked eye or later with the microscope. Hence, in initial stages, the study of biology was descriptive and called natural history.

In the 17th century, Rene Descartes of France influenced the study of biology. Physicists and chemists investigated biological phenomena and thus physiology, biochemistry and biophysics were the dominant sub-disciplines of biology for over two centuries. This was the time of ‘reductionist biology,’ and was more instrument- and lab-oriented. It involved a lot of measurement and was more focused on biological processes instead of biological forms. From an educational perspective, biology was being taught as botany, zoology and microbiology or as genetics, biochemistry, and physiology etc in separate departments in the form of separate sub-disciplines. The content of biology and its associated nature got divided. No student got a clear picture of biology in its entirety.

Specialists were created but the understanding of biology was the casualty. Unique aspects of biological phenomena like ‘emergent properties’ (properties of the whole being instead of the sum of the properties of the components of the whole) made biologists realise the necessity of using mathematical and computer-aided tools and techniques to understand such properties or phenomena. The time for ‘systems biology,’ came when ecology and evolution came to be understood more clearly. Unfortunately, something was missing. For example, biotechnology courses emphased reductionist biology, while botany and zoology ones stressed on natural history. Except microbiology, all were deficient in the technology or applied aspect, thus depriving the courses of perceived job-orientation. However, many institutions attempted to plug these gaps.

Fortunately, at the research level, many Indian institutions give importance to all branches of biology. A crucial gap was filled in Delhi University (DU) when it started a BSc (H) programme in integrated biological science at Sri Venkateswara College and the Indian Institute of Science launched a four-year BSc with biology as one of the majors but which included engineering and technology courses as well.

Thus biology in these courses is not only faithful to its true nature but also has all the features necessary to fulfil the aspirations of the innovative and bright student, the career-obsessed student and the ‘accidental learner,’ who just wants a job to settle down.

Career options are brighter than ever for biology. Other types of courses have been reformed to varying degrees with the result that today DU offers a basket of biology courses each with a unique character to cater to different demands of high-school students.

The author, a professor of zoology at the University of Delhi, headed a committee which drafted the curriculum for the BSc (H) programme in biological sciences started by the varsity in 2004. He also edited the National Council of Educational Research and Training’s biology textbooks for Class 11 and Class 12

Why go in for biology?
. You must feel attracted to and be interested in the living world
. Observation skills — have the ability to observe in the field as well as in the lab
. IT skills — the first phase of biology was in vivo (inside a living organism), the second, in vitro (inside a test tube, for example) and the third is in silico (using computers). (Students need to be taught all thee phases or faces of biology.) Computer modelling is now a significant part of biology.

Therefore, it’s important for students of biology to opt for computer applications, too, in Class 11 and 12.
. Take interest in chemistry and physics as well because lots of biochemistry and physics are included in the new curriculum
. Good ‘bench’ skills (fine motor skills) for practical and drawing work

The best colleges to study biology in Delhi and other cities

Many campus and non-campus colleges offer traditional programmes in botany and zoology. Besides this, there is a list of specialised courses offered by specific colleges as listed below:

BSc (Hons) anthropology
Hans Raj

BSc (Hons) biochemistry
Daulat Ram
Institute of Home Economics
Sri Venkateswara

BSc (Hons) biomedical sciences
Acharya Narendra Dev
Bhaskaracharya College of Applied Sciences
Jamia Millia Islamia

BSc (Hons) food technology
Bhaskaracharya College of Applied Sciences

BSc (Hons) microbiology
Institute of Home Economics
Ram Lal Anand
Swami Shraddhanand
Bhaskaracharya College of Applied Sciences

BSc applied life sciences (sericulture)
Acharya Narendra Dev

BSc life sciences
Acharya Narendra Dev
Hans Raj
Kirori Mal
Daulat Ram
Sri Aurobindo
Miranda House
Zakir Husain
Dyal Singh
Shaheed Rajguru College of Applied Sciences for Women
Jamia Millia Islamia

BSc (Hons) in biological sciences
Sri Venkateswara College

List of colleges in India
Loyola, Chennai
Presidency, Kolkata
Fergusson, Pune
Sophia, Mumbai
Hindu, Delhi
IISc, Bengaluru (Four-year BS)