Campus & Community

Sweeping changes in life sciences education approved

4 min read

Plan will broaden degree options for undergrads

Professors at Harvard University have overwhelmingly approved a plan that will reinvent the experience of the University’s undergraduate life sciences students, broadening degree options to better track modern biology and its related fields as it is practiced by scientists while boosting student advising and strongly encouraging undergraduate research.

Following a Tuesday (April 18) vote by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), implementation will begin next fall, differentiating Harvard’s life sciences degree options and making students in the current freshman class the last Harvard undergraduates with the option of receiving a general “biology” degree.

“Harvard has a stellar record of achievement and innovation in the life sciences, but our current life sciences curriculum neither reflects nor capitalizes on that inherent strength,” says William C. Kirby, Edith and Benjamin Geisinger Professor of History and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “We hope and expect that our redesign of undergraduate life sciences education will produce a strong and imaginative new generation of leaders in biomedicine, neuroscience, biotechnology, and other life science fields.”

The newly adopted programs will expand the number of life sciences concentrations (commonly known as “majors”) from five to eight, mirroring more accurately the natural categories of inquiry inhabited by modern scientists. In addition to shrinking the number of students in each life science concentration, which will enable more intensive, small-group learning experiences, the expansion of degree offerings is expected to greatly strengthen student advising, as faculty align themselves with undergraduate degree programs that more closely parallel their own interests and research. The new organization will also grant students greater flexibility and fewer, more targeted degree requirements; and make research experiences more integral to undergraduate life sciences education at Harvard.

“The last decade has seen an explosion of new life sciences knowledge and methods, which has led to new fields such as genomics, systems biology, neuroscience, and evolutionary-developmental biology,” says Douglas A. Melton, Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences and chair of FAS’s Life Sciences Council. “These innovations are having profound impacts on fields spanning the breadth of life sciences, from the social sciences to the physical sciences. While Harvard faculty are actively engaged in research in these new directions, our current curriculum is not appropriately designed to permit undergraduates to learn about and get involved in these new fields.”

Some 19 percent of Harvard undergraduates are now enrolled to receive degrees in one of the five current concentrations touching on the life sciences: Anthropology (via a Biological Anthropology track), Biochemical Sciences, Biology, Chemistry, and Psychology. These five will be replaced by a menu of eight degree options that more closely reflect current major disciplines within the life sciences: concentrations in Chemical & Physical Biology, Chemistry, Human Evolutionary Biology, Molecular & Cellular Biology, Neurobiology, and Organismic & Evolutionary Biology; a Biological Anthropology track in Anthropology and a Social & Cognitive Neuroscience track in Psychology.

Melton first convened the Life Sciences Education Committee 18 months ago, charging the group with making Harvard’s undergraduate instruction in the life sciences as strong as possible. Before developing its proposal to revamp the University’s life sciences degrees, the committee implemented new, team-taught Life Sciences 1A and 1B courses, which have radically altered introductory biology and chemistry instruction at Harvard from traditional textbook-based course work aimed at covering a broad range of topics to classes that engage major questions in the life sciences: What are the fundamental features of living systems? What are the molecules that impart these features, and how do their chemical properties explain their biological roles? Why is there so much variation among individuals? Why are species so different?

All current biology concentrators will have the option to switch into a new life science degree if their course work allows, but no new students will be allowed to declare a concentration in the current biology track after May 31.

Among other shifts prompted by these changes, the number of concentrations available for study specifically in the fast-growing field of neuroscience will increase from one to two, and the human-oriented Human Evolutionary Biology and the Biological Anthropology track in Anthropology could produce more biologists with an interest in studying human biology outside of clinical trials, where most research on human biology takes place today.

The new life sciences concentrations will be reviewed within five years, and a report presented to the faculty.