Biology Department considers more rigorous admittance qualifications

The outside of Biology Buiding on Tuesday, Oct. 29. // Photo by Zachary Jimenez

By Eva Bryner

Want to be a biology major? You might have better luck next year.

A new major acceptance policy is being proposed to come into effect next fall, according to Merrill Peterson, professor and chair of the biology department.

“We’re basically at the point where we don’t have the space to be able to accommodate the number of students who are trying to take our courses,” Peterson said.

In the past decade, the number of biology majors nearly doubled from 381 in spring 2009, to 614 in spring 2019, according to the rationale accompanying the proposed admissions policy change.

The increasing popularity in biology has created a space problem in classrooms and buildings that reaches far beyond just biology majors and is affecting graduation times of students in kinesiology, pre-health and environmental science, Peterson said. 

“Any classes other than the intro 200-level courses are almost impossible to get into until you’re a senior,”  fourth-year biology minor Natalie Calsbeek said. “It kinda sucks for anyone who’s trying to get into these classes and needs to take it for the major.”

Calsbeek has seen many of her peers struggle to get into biology courses.

“Because I’m a minor, I only have to take three or four classes, so it’s not that big of a deal if I miss some classes,” Calsbeek said. “I know people who have had to switch majors because they didn’t get in.”

The problem of overcrowding has also delayed the graduation times of many students who remain in biology, according to Peterson.

“Its harder to get into our courses, and so there is delayed time for graduation,” Peterson said. “Sometimes students have to wait a year to get into a particular course necessary for graduating.”

This pressure is reflected in the ratio of students to full-time faculty, with an increase from 17.7 students to one faculty member in 2009 to 26.9 students to one faculty member in 2019.

Plans for a science building addition were approved, but likely won’t be completed until spring 2021, according to the 2019-2021 Capital Project Proposal.

“It has been designed to try to accommodate as many courses from various programs in STEM as possible, with a primary focus on biology, chemistry and environmental science,” said Peterson.

The new building plans to have active learning classrooms, unlike the classic stadium-style on most of the campus, and will provide more lab spaces, according to Peterson. 

Creating more space is necessary, but doesn’t get to the root of the overcrowding issue, and a long-term solution is still needed.

“If we want to be able to hire people to teach at additional sections, we are going to then have to subsequently repurpose some of the space in biology that’s being used for teaching labs right now,” Peterson said. “So that reduces, to some degree, the overall gains in lab spaces that we would get by having new labs over there. But it’s the only way we can really increase our teaching capacity.”

The current major acceptance is based on GPA and requires applying students to have completed six prerequisite courses before declaring a biology major.

“We can’t actually control the number of majors with our current system,” Petersons said. “So we’re introducing this fall a proposal … that will re-do our admission policy to allow us to actually control the numbers.”

While overall enrollment at Western has also increased, the number of students in majors that require a biology course has more than doubled from 510 in fall 2001 to 1,249 in fall 2017.

The result is the proposed change, which will still consider the GPA of an applicant but will also include an entrance exam and an application form with prompts, aiming to create a comprehensive understanding of the student applying, according to Peterson.

“We spent a lot of time over the summer … thinking of how we could do this in a way that wouldn’t compromise our equity and inclusion goals,” Peterson said. “Anytime you restrict access, there’s a very distinct threat that underserved populations will be disproportionately affected by that.”

This isn’t the first time that the biology department and Huxley College of the Environment have tried to change or receive more support from the university.

Spencer Anthony-Cahill, professor and chair of the chemistry department, and Peterson provided data on the need for more staff and space to the University Planning and Resources Committee (UPRC) in March 2018.

This report shows how enrollment in core classes of the biology major increased dramatically, showcased in Biology 204, the first of the introductory courses in the major, in which enrollment increased 87.6% from 2003 to 2016. 

With this dramatic increase in enrollment, the number of waitlisted students is staggeringly high, with 44 students waitlisted for Biology 204, 55 students for Biology 321 and 109 students for Chemistry 121, an introductory course in the chemistry major.

“One of these did include additional non-tenure track faculty and some additional elements that Huxley wanted, and another was mainly additional support staff that were viewed as necessary with the growth [Huxley] experienced,” UPRC Chair Nicholas Wonder said, concerning previous proposals. 

Biology is not the only major with overcrowding problems. Huxley and the chemistry department are also feeling the heat from increased enrollment, with more undergraduate and graduate degrees given out from environmental science last year than any other STEM program at Western, according to the UPRC meeting on April 4, 2018.

According to the same report, environmental science also has the least amount of space with 14,861 square feet of total space, while biology has 41,939 square feet of space.

This lack of space in Huxley is concerning but becomes a much bigger problem as many students who leave or are not accepted to the biology major switch into environmental science or environmental studies. 

Proposed changes to the biology major admittance process would come into effect in fall 2020 at the earliest, according to Peterson.

“This does have to be a long-term solution because the existing system we had proved to be broken and didn’t protect the department and its students,” Peterson said.

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