Addressing the biology knowledge gap

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Sandra Porter
A few years ago, I heard an interesting thing from another mother when I picked my oldest daughter up from daycare. The other mother was suffering from a head cold and confessed to me her fear that she had become "antibiotic resistant." I found this statement pretty funny at the time, especially since I was teaching microbiology to college students. Over the years, though, the joke quit being funny. Now I suspect that the worry voiced by the "antibiotic resistant" mother is shared by many people. It should also be noted that my anxious friend is an educated professional and at the time, worked for our local school district, although I don't recall exactly what she did. Why did this other mother think that she had become resistant to antibiotics? She was a college graduate with a master's degree in something (I think psychology). Wouldn't you expect that she would have taken biology at some point and learned about antibiotics? Not anymore. A possible problem, that I see anyway, is that some of us at ScienceBlogs write about complicated ideas in biology without providing (or linking) to the background information that new readers (or non-biologist readers) might need to understand why we think certain things are true. I think we provide useful insights and updates on in scientific issues, but really: How do we expect people who think that they can become resistant to antibiotics to grasp the reasoning behind directives to take your antibiotics for ten days, even if you're feeling better? Naturally, as a science major, I used to assume that all college students had to take a few science courses. Somehow, I managed to forget the green pallor tracing my college friends' smiles when I happily described doing an autopsy or isolating DNA (it looks just like snot!); especially the ones who were majoring in physics or architecture. Once I started heading up a college biotechnology program, and taking an active role in advising students, I had to learn more than I had ever wanted to know about the course requirements for science and non-science majors alike. At our community college, students could get an amazing assortment of degrees starting with "A;" an A.S., A.A., or A.A.S; and only degrees with an "S" included more than one science course. I think the minimum requirement for graduation was one science course, lasting one quarter (about 12 weeks). Worse yet, many of the students, at our college, who weren't majoring in a science field, met the science requirement by taking astronomy! (Snobs that we were, some of us suspected these students were shocked to learn that astronomy and astrology are not the same thing.) So, how would college prepare most students—since I find it hard to believe that most students are biology majors&#8212understand somewhat complicated concepts like antibiotic resistance and evolution? Stay tuned, a primer on antibiotics is headed your way.

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