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Cooperative curriculum helps students learn mathematical biology


Biological sciences increasingly use mathematical modeling to describe, predict, or control complex systems. Unlike physics or chemistry, many problems in mathematical biology cannot be solved with algorithms, and biology undergraduates resist the steep learning curve. Based on well-understood principles of cooperative learning, I designed a one-semester undergraduate course in mathematical modeling in biology. Students learned principles of mathematics, biology, and collaborative teamwork by building models to solve real biological problems. While the principles of cooperative learning are well-documented, I found very few practical accounts of implementing cooperative learning, so I describe the development and evolution of the curriculum over four sequential semesters. Students assessed their own learning at 0, 4, 12, and 16 months after completing the class, in both academic and interpersonal learning. Students reported significant and persistent gains in learning mathematics and biology, and in understanding the connections between the two fields. Students also reported significant and persistent gains in their collaborative and team skills. Since the curriculum is based on broad objectives of cooperative learning and of mathematical biology, this curriculum design can be adapted to many settings.