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Student perceptions of the importance of mathematics in biology are context dependent. While students often view math as unnecessary to understanding biology, certain conditions can promote positive responses to math-bio topics. The goal of this project was to investigate factors that promote positive student attitudes. First, we created a model describing possible influences on student perceptions of math in biology. Based on this model, we predicted that instructor communication about course goals would influence student responses about the importance of mathematics in biology. To test this prediction, we altered instructor communication to Foundations of Biology 2 (BIOSC 0160) students and monitored impacts on student perceptions through the use of a survey. Instructor communication consisted of a statement of the course objectives at the beginning of the survey. Half of the students received surveys with objectives emphasizing the link between math and biology, while the other half received a survey with traditional course objectives. Following this “instructor communication,” students were asked to express their opinions about what biology is and how they learn biology. We found that our instructor communication influenced students’ perceptions about certain aspects of what biology is. Specifically, students that were primed with math-bio course objective rated statements that biological knowledge is a set of core concepts and results from classical experiments significantly lower than traditionally primed students. While student perceptions of how they learn biology were largely independent of the objectives they received, students receiving the math-bio course objectives agreed more strongly with the statement that mathematical representations can provide meaning to biological concepts. Overall, our results indicate that the majority of students acknowledged the usefulness of quantitative skills in solving biological problems but did not believe math to be a central part of biology. The results of this pilot project will be used to guide further investigation on students' attitudes towards quantitative biology.
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