The University Record, March 26, 2001

Life Sciences Initiative establishes 3 undergraduate courses

By Judith A. Steeh
News and Information Services

From its inception, the University’s Life Sciences Initiative (LSI) has included a focus on educating undergraduates. Next fall, the first three courses will be added to the curriculum, each carrying four credits. Those classes are: University Course 260—Law, Ethics and the Life Sciences; University Course 261—Brain, Learning and Memory; and University Course 262—Evolutionary Biology and Human Disease (see sidebar on page 4).

Jill Becker, professor of psychology and member of the Neuroscience Program and of the Reproductive Sciences Program, chaired both the original faculty committee that designed the call for course proposals and the evaluation committee. “We’ve had a very enthusiastic response from the faculty,” Becker says. “We have received three letters of intent for the second round of the competition and have asked all three to submit full proposals. Queries have come from throughout the University, including the schools of Music and Art and Design. When we held a brainstorming session in late January for those who needed networking help, some 15 to 20 people turned up.”

Whatever the specific subject matter of the new courses, all must be intended for first- or second-year students. Students must engage in experiential or interactive laboratory exercises. They must work in teams with faculty and graduate student instructors’ input and assistance, and there must be frequent evaluation and feedback. The committee looked for proposals that were both interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary, involving the participation of at least three faculty members from multiple departments, schools or colleges.

“Our goal is to cross-list the courses in more than one school or college so that we can enhance the diversity of students in the courses,” Becker says. Each course should accommodate 60–80 students and will have a budget of $125,000 per year for three years to pay for equipment, laboratory expenses, field trips, graduate student instructors and administrative help.

Robert Owen, associate dean for undergraduate education, notes that the courses, with their link to a major new research endeavor at the University, integrate the U-M’s teaching and research missions.

“A second positive feature of these courses is that they are highly interdisciplinary and yet are targeted at freshmen and sophomores,” Owen says. “Undergraduate courses tend to be designed along traditional disciplinary lines and typically are taught by a single faculty member. This is an established model, because students need a solid grounding in basic disciplines. But the compartmentalization of knowledge that results from this classic approach also makes it difficult for students to appreciate the high degree of connectivity that exists between different fields.

“A major goal of the Life Sciences courses is to stress this connectivity by having faculty from different disciplines in the same classroom at the same time. For example, on an issue such as genetic engineering, which encompasses both cutting-edge scientific research and profound ethical questions, students could get the perspective of a biochemist and a philosopher in the same class. That’s what is really different about these courses,” Owen adds.

Plans call for the addition of three other courses in fall 2002. For more information, contact Evans Young, (734) 763-0238 or

Life Sciences courses to be offered in fall

The first three courses in the Life Sciences Initiative (LSI) are designed for students who want to learn more about the scientific, ethical and social implications of the life sciences revolution.

Law, Ethics and the Life Sciences

Nicholas Steneck, professor of history and coordinator of the Ethics Across the Curriculum program in the College of Engineering; Brian Coppola, associate professor of chemistry; Edward Goldman, Health System attorney; Sofia Merajver, associate professor of internal medicine; and Elizabeth Petty, associate professor of internal medicine, will teach this class.

Steneck, the lead instructor for the course, consults across the campus and in Washington, D.C., on research integrity issues. “For some years, I have been concerned that we channel students into particular lines of learning without giving them any notion of how to make links between their own fields of endeavor and others,” he says. “The LSI seemed to be the ideal place to address this issue, to open a dialogue between scientists and social scientists, for example.”

The course will introduce students to the scientific, social, legal and ethical dimensions of the life sciences by examining the use of genetic information, both in health decisions and in testing for identity, such as in crime detection. Following background lectures on the different approaches to learning in law, natural science, social science and the humanities, lectures and laboratories will focus on an in-depth exploration of two case studies on health and identity testing. During the last half of the course, a team assignment will allow students to explore a related problem and present final recommendations to the class for comment and discussion.

Brain, Learning and Memory

Stephen Maren, assistant professor of psychology; John Jonides, professor of psychology; and Hylan Moises, professor of physiology, will teach this course.

“Nationally, there is a growing interest in cognitive neuroscience and its relationship to behavior and learning,” Maren says. “Courses in this area are attracting an ever-growing number of students, and this course should be no exception. Its focus will be on brain and behavior in both humans and animals, including the cellular and molecular levels, and the labs will give students a great opportunity to do some fascinating experiments, including some neuroimaging.”

The course is intended to introduce students to topics in cognitive systems and cellular neuroscience, with an emphasis on learning and memory. Each of the faculty members will teach a module designed to integrate knowledge of methodology and basic neuroscience, and their application to learning and memory. The modules are clinical neuropathology and neuroimaging, animal models of learning and memory, and synaptic and cellular mechanisms of learning and memory. Students will explore these topics in lectures and hands-on laboratory exercises.

Evolutionary Biology and Human Disease

David Mindell, associate professor of biology, curator, Museum of Zoology, and director of the Genomic Diversity Laboratory, Museum of Zoology; Randolph Nesse, professor of psychiatry, faculty associate, Research Center for Group Dynamics, and director, Evolution and Human Adaptation Program; and Alan Weder, professor of internal medicine, will teach this class.

Mindell and Nesse already have co-taught a graduate seminar on the evolution of disease, so it seemed natural to develop a course for the LSI, Mindell says. “The concepts and methods of evolutionary biology are increasingly important in understanding the origins of various diseases, as well as their ability to spread and be controlled.”

Nesse, whose work is mainly on Darwinian medicine, especially as applied to psychiatric disorders, notes that the course marks the 10th anniversary of the publication of an article titled “The Dawn of Darwinian Medicine,” which he wrote with a distinguished evolutionary biologist, George Williams. The two subsequently wrote a book, Why We Get Sick, which is used in courses on Darwinian medicine around the world.

“This is the first undergraduate course on this topic at Michigan, despite our reputation for excellence in this area. Premedical students will get a good foundation for thinking about disease, but most any student will love learning to think clearly about why organisms are the way they are,” he says.

This course will use problems in medicine and public health as a framework for teaching the principles of evolutionary biology. It will engage students in critical thinking about disease origins and causation, using principles of evolutionary biology such as natural selection, adaptation, phylogenetic analysis and general scientific hypothesis testing. These principles are a necessary foundation for understanding any of the life sciences.