May 1996

Curriculum Working Party Report on the Core Content of Biochemistry First Degrees

Foreword
Introduction
The Question of Chemistry
The Breadth of Biochemistry
Options
Laboratory Work
The Sandwich Year
The Time Available
Conclusions
Annex 1
Annex 2

Foreword

Following a suggestion from the London Regional Group, The Professional and Educational Committee established a working party to assess the current curriculum of biochemistry first degrees in the United Kingdom and, if possible, to define a common core to that curriculum.

The members of the working party were:

Dr J M Wrigglesworth (chair), King’s College London
Dr A W Bunch, University of Kent (Industrial Biochemistry & Biotechnology Group)
Dr K R F Elliott, University of Manchester (Education Group)
Dr B H Moreland, UMDS Guy’s Hospital Medical School (London Regional Section)
Dr C I Ragan, Merck Sharp & Dohme
(Association of British Pharmaceutical Industries (ABPI) representative)
Dr C J Skidmore, University of Reading (Southern Regional Section)
Dr C A Smith, Manchester Metropolitan University (Northern Regional Section)
Ms D Stilwell, The Biochemical Society
Professor J Watson, University of Strathclyde (Scottish Regional Section)
Dr W J Whish, University of Bath (Wales & West Regional Section)

The working party identified five main reasons to undertake this exercise:

  • The findings could be used for any future validation of biochemistry courses either by the Society itself or by other professional bodies.
  • The findings would aid comparison with biochemistry degrees within Europe.
  • The findings would enable students from biochemistry degrees to have detailed accreditation for their skills.
  • The findings would be of use to potential employers of biochemistry graduates as the level and range of practical skills would be better defined.
  • The findings would be of use in schools’ liaison work and would be of help for careers’ guidance of prospective students.

Introduction

1. There have been rapid changes taking place in secondary school curricula. Students entering higher education now have a very different learning background to pre-1990's. There is a strong emphasis on problem-based learning at secondary level, together with a reduction of factual content. For example, the syllabus content of chemistry A-level has been reduced by approximately one third since 1990 and has been redesigned to respond to the new pre-16 science curriculum. Additionally, more students are entering higher education with qualifications other than the traditional A-levels. University teaching will have to adapt and the biochemistry curriculum needs to reflect the altered level of basic knowledge and the increase in learning skills of the students.

2. Quite apart from the changes taking place in schools, the increased numbers entering higher education leads to an additional strain. The close contact necessary to guide students and develop their skills is difficult to provide in large classes. This is especially true for laboratory teaching. For example, many biochemistry departments now offer a theoretical project in the final year rather than provide a laboratory based project for all students. We need to consider the effects of current practice in the training of professional biochemists.

3. The success of biochemistry as a discipline has also created problems in defining what should or should not be included in an undergraduate degree. It is now recognised that a common biochemical approach can be taken to the full range of molecular and cellular life sciences. This can easily lead to an increased factual content in biochemistry degree programmes and a lack of understanding. More commonly, the curriculum is designed with over-specialisation in one topic area to the detriment of others. One of the main tasks of the working party was to see if it is possible (or even desirable) to define some common, yet adaptable, core to a biochemistry degree curriculum.

4. The aim of a core curriculum is to define a flexible framework of academic and vocational objectives which will produce graduates able to apply biochemical knowledge and skills to a wide variety of problems in the life sciences.

5. The working party also examined whether current biochemistry teaching is satisfying the needs of potential employers. We canvassed members of the ABPI Scientific Committee and Academic Liaison Working Party for opinions on the levels of practical skill they looked for when recruiting biochemistry graduates. There was remarkable unanimity amongst the respondents concerning the deficiencies in current biochemistry training and in the core skills that companies require. These can be summarised as follows:

- Numeracy and data analysis

New graduates were widely felt to be ill-equipped for the quantitative aspects of science. Examples cited were the inability to convert weights into moles, to calculate concentrations in molarity, to carry out dilutions accurately, and to prepare solutions particularly buffers. Data manipulation needed to be improved and some ability to use statistical analysis packages would be desirable.

- Experimental design

A common view was that new graduates had limited understanding of experimental design and did not appreciate the need for proper controls. Although employers could teach protocol design, some ability to follow a relatively complex protocol was nevertheless required.

- Specific experimental skills

Many companies were of the opinion that new graduates lacked experience with modern equipment and comments were made on the highly variable level of skills between graduates from different universities. Several companies praised the sandwich year for providing a much better skills base.

- Laboratory practice

Emphasis was placed on the importance of safe-working practices and a knowledge of hazards and safety legislation. The ability to work in teams, good record keeping, presentation skills, time management, computer literacy and interpersonal skills were all cited as desirable features in a new graduate.

6. In order to address these issues, the working party has analysed, as far as was possible, the curricula of present undergraduate degrees in biochemistry (as listed in the UCAS guide) with the aim of defining common components thought to be essential to a biochemistry degree programme.

The Question of Chemistry

7. We were unanimous in agreeing that professional biochemists require an understanding of fundamental chemical principles and an ability to apply that knowledge to life processes. In their course of study, students must be enabled to gain a knowledge of molecular structures commonly found in the life sciences and be able to understand the reactions and reaction mechanisms undergone by such structures. The application of relevant physical and thermodynamic principles governing life processes is also required. We concluded that these aspects of chemistry should be included as a core component of any biochemistry degree programme.

8. The minimum amount of chemistry acceptable for entry into a biochemistry degree programme has usually been taken to be the equivalent of ‘A-level’, with universities varying in the standard of pass required for entry. A study of prospectuses from 48 institutions shows that most biochemistry degree programmes then provide compulsory chemistry teaching at level 1 (equivalent to year 1 of study except in Scotland where this is equivalent to year 2 of study. In Scotland, some courses appear to teach chemistry as a compulsory subject only at level 0.) Some chemistry is also included in the second year of study but a common theme between university prospectuses was that chemistry is significantly downplayed.

9. We believe that with present entry requirements, biochemistry students should devote a minimum of 25% of their studies in the first year to the study of relevant aspects of chemistry. Any deficiency in entry standards for chemistry should be compensated by increased foundation teaching in the subject. It then may be necessary to provide further chemistry teaching in the second year of study.

The Breadth of Biochemistry

10. Biochemistry is a multidisciplinary and dynamic subject. Information taken from current prospectuses shows that a wide variety of subjects is now included in the biochemistry curriculum. Molecular biology and molecular genetics are increasing in importance. Studies in metabolism, including enzymology, seem to maintain a central place in the curriculum although the approach is now based more on structure and function rather than pathways and kinetics. Some new topics that have appeared include intracellular signalling and protein trafficking. Immunology was named as a specific course in 50% of prospectuses with plants mentioned in only 20% and pharmacology only being named in 6% of cases.

11. The working party concluded that, despite the breadth of the subject, a number of key areas were essential to any undergraduate degree course in biochemistry. Amongst these, it was thought that graduates should possess skills and knowledge in the following general areas:

  • molecular biology, including regulation of gene expression
  • metabolism, including regulation and intracellular signalling
  • protein structure and function, including enzymology
  • structural biochemistry, including the biophysics of macromolecules
  • membrane structure and function, including bioenergetics and transport
  • molecular cell biology, including intercellular signalling
  • applied biochemistry, including relevant aspects of biotechnology

In Annex 1, we suggest a list of topics which we feel should to be included, together with chemistry, as core elements within these general areas. For convenience, the topics are arranged under traditional headings but they could equally well be arranged in a variety of other ways.. However arranged, the material presented will always need to include components which are new and stimulating to the students throughout their studies. A survey was done approximately ten years ago by the Biochemical Society Education Group (Biochem.Edn. (1987) 3, 122-129) which details a consensus view of the composition of a biochemistry curriculum at that time (Figure 1). The core curriculum outlined in Annex I does not differ in many respects from that earlier view but obviously the detailed syllabus for each topic will change and will continue to change to reflect advances in the subject.

Options

12. We feel it important that various options, academically and professionally related to biochemistry, should be available to students of biochemistry. These options should be a meaningful and attractive part of any degree programme. Annex 2 gives some indication of the interrelationship between some of the subject options which could contribute to the overall biochemistry curriculum. The options will vary between degree courses and will normally be designed to fit the expertise and interest of the serving department. However, at least 50% of the degree programme should be devoted to the study of the core areas of biochemistry. If departments feel that more room is needed for other options, this should not be done at the expense of core material.

Laboratory Work

13. The curriculum must include training in experimental skills sufficient to support the theoretical aspects of the subject. This should include basic approaches to experimental problems, training in standard biochemical techniques and skills associated with the recording and presentation of experimental results. Priority should be given to ensure that students are aware of safe working practices in the laboratory.

14. We concluded that an appropriate minimum of practical work over the first two years of study would be the equivalent of one day per week rising to two days per week in the final year. Practical work should be appropriately assessed and should contribute to the final degree classification.

15. The working party regarded project-type work as an essential element in the education of a professional biochemist since open ended activities of this kind develop essential high level career skills. It is usual for project work to be confined to the final year of study but small group projects can be introduced prior to the final year with beneficial effects. Projects can be laboratory based or theoretical but the former should normally be the practice. We recognise the problems of providing individual laboratory projects for all students, especially with increased class sizes. The pressure of numbers makes it difficult in a typical department to supervise a meaningful experimental project for every final year student. Nevertheless, if the curriculum does not contain such an element, then it will be for the department to demonstrate by what alternative means students will be helped to obtain such skills. An allocation of a laboratory or theoretical project to a student should be made on the basis of the benefit to the student rather than to the department.

16. The presentation of the results of project work, both orally and in writing, is an important component of the student’s educational experience. Poster presentation of work should be encouraged at all years of the degree programme. Other general transferable skills, e.g. computing skills, the ability to locate, analyse and utilise information, the ability to work in a team, should be included in the curriculum.

The Sandwich Year

17. The working party agreed that wherever possible, some laboratory work in a professional environment is a desirable option to the curriculum. This is most usefully done as a year out between the second and final years of study. The personal qualities and attributes derived from a relevant work experience often include a growth in the student’s maturity and self-confidence. There is usually an increased motivation and enthusiasm for final year studies. However, not all students are likely to benefit from the experience and we believe that an extramural year should be an option, selected to match to the capabilities and future career plans of the student.

The Time Available

18. Opinions were divided over the question of three or four year degrees. One viewpoint of industry was that the three-year monolithic degree is on its last legs. Modular courses suit business needs much better and it was stated that we could offer a mix of 2,3 and 4 year programmes. Two-year taught courses could suit those heading out of science and might increase the numbers in the general population with a reasonable understanding of science. It should be noted that the Biochemical Society’s analysis of employment statistics of biochemistry graduates shows that close to a third of our graduates take up employment in areas not directly related to biochemistry.

19. The working party agreed that a two-year taught course would not be suitable for those students wishing to make a career in science. The present three-year degree structure provides sufficient time to produce graduates competent in applying their skills to theoretical problems in the molecular and cellular life sciences. A four-year degree course would provide the graduate with a better skills base, to function as a "professional biochemist". In the present curriculum this is best provided by the sandwich or extramural year. In addition, we believe that without further training in practical skills, the three year undergraduate degree programme does not provided a suitable base for a three year PhD programme.

Conclusions

20. We concluded that it is both possible and desirable to define a core curriculum to the biochemistry first degree. The core material (see Annex 1) should include relevant aspects of chemistry and should also place emphasis on laboratory work and transferable skills. Students aiming for employment in industry, where biochemistry is to be of direct application, should be encouraged to take an extra year of supervised work experience between the second and final year of study. Progression to a Ph.D. programme from the three-year undergraduate programme will require extra training in practical skills.

21. Biochemistry is an evolving discipline and the detailed syllabuses within the general areas of the core curriculum should not be prescriptive. The material presented will always need to include components which are new and stimulating to the student. The core curriculum itself will need to be kept under continuous review.


Figure 1

Average results of an international survey of the subject content of a biochemistry curriculum.

(Data taken from Bryce, C.F.A. (1987) Biochemical Education 15, 122-129)


ANNEX 1

A list of topic objectives to define the main content of the core curriculum (see para. 11).

Chemistry

The aim of the core material in chemistry is to provide the student with sufficient basics of chemistry (physical, inorganic and organic) to study and understand the subject of biochemistry. The content should include a sensible grounding in the following subjects:

  • Atomic and molecular structure
  • Thermodynamics
  • Electrochemistry
  • Functional-group organic chemistry
  • Chemical reaction kinetics
  • Surface and colloid chemistry
  • Elementary natural-product chemistry
  • Bio-inorganic chemistry

Molecular Biology, Including Regulation of Gene Expression

The aim should be to aquaint students with current ideas on the structure, arrangement, expression and regulation of genes in living organisms, both prokaryote and eukaryote. By the end of the degree, the student should be expected to understand:

  • The chemical and physical properties of nucleic acids and the role of enzymes in replicating and transcribing DNA.
  • The role of ribosomes, endoplasmic reticulum and transfer RNA in the synthesis of proteins.
  • How genes are structured, organised and expressed, and an overview of how gene expression is regulated.

The student should be provided with a good grounding in the practical application of molecular biology techniques including experiments designed to illustrate their relevance in an active research programme.

Metabolism, including regulation and intracellular signalling

The student should gain an understanding of:

  • Anabolic and catabolic pathways including the key intermediates linking these pathways
  • The principles of flux control and metabolic regulation
  • The mechanisms that balance the activity of key pathways to physiological demands
  • The differences between the metabolic needs and responses of animals, plants, and microbial organisms

Emphasis should be placed on problem solving rather than an ability to memorise individual pathways. On completion of the degree, the student should have a full understanding of the central role of metabolism in prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells and be able to relate this to the biology of whole organisms. The aim should be to present a coherent integrated account of cell metabolism with emphasis on the mechanisms of regulation.

Different degree programmes may wish to specialise in particular areas of metabolism, in addition to the core material. For example, mammalian metabolism could include more detail on the following:

  • The digestion and assimilation of food
  • The control of the synthesis and storage of glycogen and triacylglycerol by metabolites and hormones.
  • The role and control of glycogenolysis in liver and muscle.
  • The control of gluconeogenesis in the liver.
  • The consequences of lipolysis and fatty acid oxidation in liver and muscle. Ketone body synthesis in liver, and the use of ketone bodies in muscle and brain.
  • Aspects of amino acid metabolism - transdeamination and urea synthesis. Excretion of urea and ammonia.

Similarly, areas of special emphasis could be developed in plant and bacterial metabolism.

Protein Structure and Function Including Enzymology

The degree programme should provide an understanding of the functions of proteins on the basis of structural information and the chemistry of reactions. By the end of the course the student should be able to understand the various experimental and theoretical approaches to the study and prediction of protein conformation, including the display and manipulation of structural information on the computer. In enzymology, the student should be able to explain:

  • catalysis at the molecular level from studies of kinetics and the molecular structure of enzymes
  • The mechanistic role of co-factors in enzyme catalysis
  • the various methods of regulation of catalytic activity

On the practical side, the student should be familiar with the main techniques for protein purification and characterisation. The student should also be able to assay the activity of selected enzymes.

Structural biochemistry, including the biophysics of macromolecules

The student should become familiar with the general molecular structure and reactivity of carbohydrates, nucleic acids, proteins and lipids. Studies should include a description of supramolecular structures such as microfillaments, chromosomes, cell walls and viruses. In addition, the principles and applications of a suitable selection of techniques for studying macromolecular structure should be covered.

Membrane structure and function, including bioenergetics and transport

The aim is to understand the role of membranes in cellular processes including signal transduction, solute transport and energy transduction. The mechanisms of coupling exergonic reactions to endergonic reactions should include the role of ion gradients, redox reactions and chemical intermediates. Wherever possible, a quantitative approach should be taken.

Molecular cell biology, including intercellular signalling

The aim is to provide an understanding of the structure and function of the cell with examples from animals, plants and micro-organisms. Emphasis should be placed on subcellular organisation and the dynamics of cellular function. In particular the student should be familiar with the following:

  • The function of the major subcellular structures.
  • The basis of cellular and subcellular organisation including problems of compartmentation.
  • The changes taking place during cell division, cell differentiation and cell death.
  • The main techniques used in cell biology.

Applied biochemistry, including relevant aspects of biotechnology

The aim is to introduce applications of biochemistry which have proven technological worth. These applications could include:

  • The industrial applications of enzymes.
  • Techniques of gene cloning and gene expression for industrial use.
  • Biotransformations for industrial use.

The student should also be introduced to the concepts of research and development in biotechnology industries, including intellectual property rights and ethical considerations.


ANNEX 2

Some subject options academically related to the core curriculum (see para. 12).


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