Biology major changes increase flexibility

Rachel Alexander

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Illustration: Emily Johnson

Starting next fall, biology majors at Whitman will have a more flexible set of requirements to meet in order to receive their degrees. The changes have been made in response to rising enrollment rates at Whitman, which have saturated required biology classes and made it difficult for students to register for the courses they need to take.

“We have always required most of the classes that students take, so those classes are very large and very hard to get into. It’s been a perpetual problem,” said Biology Department Chair Delbert Hutchinson.

The largest change to the major is replacing three required upper-division classes with a less rigid category system. Previously, all biology majors were required to take ecology, cell biology and physiology. Under the new requirements, students must now take one class in each of three categories: molecular and cell biology, organismal biology, and ecology and evolution. Each of these categories will have three to four classes offered per year, which will make it easier for students to fulfill requirements without having to worry about getting into one specific class.

Biology is one of Whitman’s most popular majors. Hutchinson said that about 40 students graduate in biology and biology-combined majors every year, and according to Dean of Admissions Tony Cabasco, about 10 percent of prospective students express interest in biology.

Senior biology major Sophie Davis said she felt the changes were necessary, but was concerned that the new requirements might expose students to less diversity in their course loads.

“Because you’re required to take a very specific course load [under the old system], you come away with a very holistic understanding,” she said.

She felt that students might be motivated to select courses within the new categories based on their interests instead of wanting to learn about something totally new.

“You’re going to have the potential to miss out on a course you might have learned a lot from,” she said.

Hutchinson said that the new requirements would bring Whitman’s biology major more in line with those of other similar liberal arts schools. He also expects students who want to study abroad to benefit from the changes.

“More of the classes [students] take abroad have the potential to go right for the major,” he said.

Other combined major programs will be affected by the change. Biology-environmental studies majors will be able to choose classes from the newly established categories, rather than being required to take specific upper-division courses. While the biology, biophysics and molecular biology major requirements have not been changed, the increased flexibility for biology majors means that more classes offered in the BBMB department will count towards biology major requirements.

Natalie Jamerson, a junior biology-environmental studies major, said she was looking forward to having more class options available to her. Still, she had concerns about the possible effects for her combined major program.

“Some of the classes you can take to fill [the new categories] aren’t as applicable to environmental studies,” she said. With more flexibility, she believes classes that are more appropriate for environmental studies majors might fill up with regular biology majors, since those classes will now fulfill requirements for them. This might deprive biology-environmental studies majors of the ability to take classes that are particularly relevant to them.

In spite of their reservations, Davis and Jamerson agree that the changes are needed to address registration issues. Biology is one of the most popular majors at Whitman, and overcrowding is a perpetual problem. Even as a junior, Jamerson said she wasn’t able to get into required classes this semester.

“I couldn’t get into cell biology just because of my registration time. It put me in a position where I’m not taking any classes that count towards biology this semester,” she said.

Sophomore biology major Daniel Zajic echoed these concerns.

“There were a lot of scheduling conflicts that inhibited me from taking any more than one biology class this semester, which is unfortunate because of how big the biology major is,” he said in an email. “As a second-semester sophomore, I felt as if I were behind in the requirements.”

The new requirements also contain other changes. The total credit load has been reduced from 34 to 33,    and a new one-credit seminar to present thesis research has been added. Students also now have the option of taking one semester of calculus and one of statistics, instead of two semesters of calculus. Because the new major requirements are less stringent than the old ones, all current majors will be converted to the new system starting next fall.

Ultimately, the new major requirements will help make the growth of Whitman’s biology program sustainable.

“When you have a small faculty and a large student body, you need the flexibility,” said Hutchinson.+

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