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An experiment in how to teach future doctors

Concern over undergraduate science education, in particular the training of those going on to medical careers, is the inspiration behind the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's new science education initiative.

The four-year, $1.8 million National Experiment in Undergraduate Science Education (NEXUS) will bring together four universities under a single, bold goal: To create an interdisciplinary undergraduate curriculum that shifts the focus from the acquisition of facts to the application of scientific knowledge to analyze problems. 

The University of Maryland, College Park; the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Purdue University; and the University of Miami are each tasked with creating new courses and methods of assessment. Each institution will develop and share aspects of the interdisciplinary curriculum that connects biology with other fields of science, such as physics, math, and chemistry.

A 2009 report, examining the scientific competencies required of medical students, set this new experiment in science education in motion. The Association of American Medical Colleges and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute convened a committee of scientists, physicians, and science educators. The resulting report, Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians, recommended changes to the undergraduate curriculum that emphasized the mastery of eight interdisciplinary competencies by all students seeking entry to medical school.

The new curriculum will move away from requiring specific courses in physics, math and chemistry for pre-med majors. Instead, students will be expected to demonstrate knowledge of the basic principles of these subjects and be able to apply them to the understanding of living systems.

Each of the four participating schools will focus on specific topics, creating teaching modules that can be added to existing courses, or expanded into entirely new interdisciplinary courses. For example, the University of Maryland, College Park is redesigning their introductory physics course for biology majors by presenting physics concepts in biological contexts. At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the introductory biology course is being revised to include mathematical modeling approaches to the study of biological processes.

Today, many successful scientists have learned to reach across disciplines, yet undergraduate science courses have stagnated. This initiative is truly an experiment—and science educators across the country will be watching the results.

To assess the results, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has enlisted the help of Indiana University evaluation specialist Davis Hanauer. Hanauer will be facilitating the coordination of assessment work among the participating universities. The faculty from the four institutions will be collaborating through meetings and conference calls to make sure that the new curriculum is designed and measured in a unified way.

If the National Experiment in Undergraduate Science Education can encourage science students to integrate their knowledge of different subjects, and to think creatively about applications of that knowledge, the experiment will speak volumes about physician training, with new ways of thinking at other institutions not far behind. 

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