Amplifying Humanistic and Meta Knowledge in the Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences

Joshua Caulkins, Arizona State University at the Tempe Campus, Karin Ellison, Arizona State University at the Tempe Campus, Ben Hurlbut, Arizona State University at the Tempe Campus, Kate MacCord, Arizona State University, Amy Pate, Arizona State University at the Tempe Campus, Christian Wright, Arizona State University at the Tempe Campus


The Biological Sciences Degree Program at Arizona State University is in the midst of a revolution. Through institutional support at the level of the Director of the School of Life Sciences, the core courses required of undergraduates in this major are being reviewed and realigned to cutting-edge pedagogical standards, 21st century skills, and national standards for knowledge. Amidst this culture of change, we envision a change in STEM education that provides students with an education that robustly integrates humanistic, meta, and foundational knowledge in order to better prepare them for their lives as professionals and citizens. This project highlights the incorporation of humanistic and meta knowledge into the Biological Sciences Degree Program.


Science, technology, and medicine, particularly in the life sciences, are essential to the fabric of modern life. If the life sciences and (bio)technology, or science and technology generally, are to respond to the grand challenges of the 21st century, those challenges must also be understood to include humanistic and meta knowledge. While a minority of life sciences majors will hold careers in life sciences, including biomedical and ecological professions, all will need to thrive in the 21st century as individuals, professionals, and citizens, and to live in societies in which life sciences and technologies are of ever-increasing importance. Therefore, a 21st century life sciences education must reach beyond textbook scientific knowledge to embrace the social contexts, purposes, and aspirations. We must recognize that humanistic and meta knowledge are fundamental components of research and innovation in the medical and life sciences. We must give students the foundations to critically reflect upon, debate about, and articulate well-developed views on the societal context and significance of advances in the life sciences. Undergraduate biology education should integrate foundational knowledge, values, and their significance for action and cultivate capacities of empathy, critical engagement, ethical reflection, and robust expression and communication. The proposed program of curricular reform within the Biological Sciences Degree Program offers a model for this form of integration.

The curricular reform brings together national aspirations in undergraduate life sciences education with particular foci and strengths of the School of Life Sciences. An important starting place nationally is AAAS's "Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action" (2011). In addition to calling for a reconceptualization of the foundational knowledge needed for students of the life sciences, this nationally recognized statement points to the need to integrate humanistic and meta knowledge into the life sciences. Core Competency 6 -- "[a]bility to understand the relationship between science and society: Biology is conducted in a societal context" -- particularly focuses on humanistic knowledge. In addition, a large and long standing body of work at the intersection of history, philosophy, and social studies of science and life sciences education has recast "nature of science" learning outcomes in this framework.

Context within ASU's School of Life Sciences

Within the School of Life Sciences, faculty clusters bring depth of knowledge in both biology in societal context (BSC) and biology education to this enterprise. Humanistic and meta knowledge is represented by the Center for Biology and Society, which integrates history, philosophy, science studies, ethical and other humanistic and social science perspectives with biology.  Drawing on the AAAS language and our Center for Biology and Society we frequently refer to the humanistic and meta elements of knowledge as BSC.

Goals of the Program

  1. Provide students with an education that robustly integrates humanistic, meta, and foundational knowledge in order to better prepare them for their lives as professionals and citizens.
  2. Create means for innovation in curricular design and assessment that ensure that students graduate with appropriate skills and knowledge bases in humanistic and meta knowledge.

Learning Outcomes

  1. Students will apply their foundational, humanistic, and meta knowledge to perform a critical analysis . In particular, students should be able to analyze...
    1. ...what counts as knowledge. (epistemology)
    2. professional practices, cultures, and norms shape scientific knowledge. (social studies of science)
    3. broader socio-cultural, economic, political, and historical context shape science, technology, and medicine. (history)
    4. / whether developments in science and technology are good/bad, ethical/unethical, desirable/undesirable, and by whom and in what terms. (ethics)
  2. Students will be able to effectively communicate and collaborate about problems related to science, technology, and medicine in social contexts.
  3. Students will demonstrate that they value the humanistic axes and be actively engaged and inquisitive about them.

Assessing Program Outcomes

We have developed an outline for our program level assessments:

  1. Students will produce a portfolio of their work across the revised courses.
    • Student progress will be assessed through evaluation of their portfolios throughout their degree programs.
  2. Courses will be evaluated for their humanistic and meta knowledge through a rubric.
  3. Administration of surveys capturing values and attitudes towards, and knowledge of humanistic and meta knowledge at the beginning and end of the degree program, with the possibility of interim assessments.

Detailed Description of the Program

We plan to infuse humanistic and meta knowledge into the Biological Sciences degree program within the School of Life Sciences (SOLS) at Arizona State University, Tempe.  The content will be delivered through a series of learning experiences that emphasize communication, collaboration, problem solving, and critical analysis within existing required courses. There will also be a student incentive (a digital credential) to select a humanistic capstone course, one of several that are currently offered, and that course will also fulfill an upper level elective requirement for the students.  A vision for long-term implementation of this initiative is to work within the unit to revise the requirements for the Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences such that a Biology in Societal Context (BSC) capstone course is required.See a more detailed description »
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