Some comments on education from the SMB President - January 2004

Lou Gross
Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Department of Mathematics
University of Tennessee
Knoxville, Tennessee 37996-1610

Over the past several months I have become more and more convinced of the need for our Society to provide input, as individuals as well as a Society, for many issues of great concern worldwide. Our research efforts have direct impact into issues as varied as public health, education activities at all levels, economic development, and research that is at the frontier in this "Century of Biology". Those in attendance at the Dundee Conference had the opportunity to learn about the great diversity of activities of our members in research, but relatively little about our educational efforts.

The vast majority of Society members are involved in formal educational activities as faculty members, mentors to colleagues, and graduate students involved in assisting instruction. In addition, many of us are involved in informal educational activities, as parents, speakers to community groups and "distributed mentors" to those across the planet with web access who need to have some question answered. I hope that many members, as I do, respond to questions from students and others out there on the web who ask questions (sometimes naive) about their work. I intend to work on ways for our Society to foster methods to enhance public understanding of the relationship between mathematics and biology, just as we have so effectingly (in no small part due to the efforts of Gerda de Vries) developed methods to assist in mentoring younger researchers in our field.

This is therefore a call to members to volunteer to lead, under the auspices of the Education Committee, ways to improve the public understanding of quantitative biology. There is an expanding literature on research in learning that can benefit all of us involved in education. A brief summary of the approaches, including examples from across math and science, is in Charlene D'Avanzo's article "Research on learning: potential for improving college ecology teaching" published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 1:533-540 . Numerous reports are available on-line that can help members improve their ability to connect their research and educational activities. One is a report of a Workshop I chaired at the US National Academy of Sciences - Integrating Research and Education: Biocomplexity Investigators Explore the Possibilities.

I regularly tell my graduate students that research efforts are not "science" until they are published in the open literature, making them accessible to be critiqued, modified and expanded. In the same way, our research efforts should not be considered complete until we have adequately translated them into a form that is accessible to the general public. Certainly this is difficult, and I'm sure many of you tire of trying to come up with ways to explain what mathematical biology is all about when you tell folks what you do at parties. Yet, this is essential, and I hope that the efforts of the Society in this regard (which are just getting underway, in that we wish to produce a simple take-away document that might be used to explain mathematical biology to public officials) will grow.

Please contact me if you have additional ideas about how our Society can expand its educational activities and broaden public understanding of mathematical biology.

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