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Bridging the math gap in biology

The ability to effectively use mathematical models in understanding and communicating the foundations of biology is a waning skill among of freshmen students in the United States (PCAST, 2012).

Worrying that this “mathematics gap” may dissuade students from pursuing a degree in a STEM field, a consortium of educators at six liberal arts colleges and two universities developed the Biological Science Quantitative Reasoning Exam (BioSQuaRE) to identify students’ areas of weakness and bolster them through personalized learning plans and academic support.

Through a 35-minute in class or online administration, BioSQuaRE allows instructors to gain insights into their students’ understanding of data visualization, algebra and functions, statistics, modeling, and probability. If used at the beginning of a course, the results may encourage instructors to emphasize more time on content most of the class is struggling with while also providing resources to support individual students. Instructors also often administer the BioSQuaRE at the end of a course to benchmark student learning gains, and if necessary, refer them for additional academic support to improve their chances of success in completing the degree program.

Preliminary results from BioSQuaRE administrations across 12 post-secondary institutions suggest the assessment is successful in narrowing the “mathematics gap” high school students have upon entering biology and related STEM majors. The assessment is also beneficial for institutions in comparing the quantitative curricula and outcomes of courses throughout an academic department.

An inadequate preparation in mathematics causes too many students interested in biology and STEM to choose alternative academic paths. Through BioSQuaRE, instructors hope to change this by identifying weaknesses and providing support early in their students STEM careers.

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About the Author: Dustin is a senior account manager with DesignedUX, providing communications and marketing strategy to organizations in education and technology. Dustin is also a part-time faculty member at Centennial College and serves on the board of the Canadian Public Relations Society.

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