How computer science can improve learning in biology

Stuart McGregor Dallas, upper school biology teacher at TASIS England, discusses why computing skills have a place in learning other sciences

As digital technologies transform the world we live in, from the internet of things, artificial intelligence, and robotics to biotechnology, computer science fluency is now a fundamental skill for the next generation. In fact coding has become so critical that experts argue it could potentially become the new literacy.

The benefits of coding in education are two-fold: Not only does it benefit computer science students, but it also significantly improves learning potential for them in other subjects, like science.

Curriculums need stronger focus on computer science

Biology is typically a complex subject for students to learn. The challenge is helping them to visualise concepts, over and above lab work and textbook learning. Some curriculums, like the International Baccalaureate (IB), for example, challenge students to think beyond subject-based learning outcomes which is fundamental for helping them prepare for higher education and future career opportunities. However, what many of these curriculums fail to offer students is the opportunity to learn basic computer science skills. In biology, providing students with a general understanding of coding would help them to visualise complicated concepts, better prepare them for higher education and significantly increase their career prospects. Especially in areas like scientific research.

Challenge of learning genetics

One area of biology that is particularly tricky for students to grasp is genetics, simply because it has so many facets. Many students misunderstand the effect of mutations and how to explain them in relation to the central dogma of genetics. This is the basic framework of understanding of how genetic code influences the proteins produced within a cell. For students, this is essential learning to help them understand what the genome does and create a link between genetics and natural selection, which plays a critical role in driving evolution. Understanding these concepts is fundamental for both standard-level and higher-level students.

In biology, providing students with a general understanding of coding would help them to visualise complicated concepts, better prepare them for higher education and significantly increase their career prospects.

 How coding aids visualisation

Unfortunately failing to understand, interpret and visualise the concepts of molecular biology, genetics and evolution is very common among young biology students. Often, they are unable to link multiple concepts and see how they interact. As a student, I found understanding and visualising this process very difficult to do from just a textbook. It wasn’t until I was introduced to protein visualisation software at university, that it all became clear. So, I created an exercise to help improve student’s IT skills whilst also advancing their understanding of the central dogma of genetics. To do this, we used a very basic computing language called Snap! created by University of California, Berkley. This allowed even computer novices to create their own programme to convert DNA sequences into amino acid sequences, which could then be entered in K-fold, a protein folding prediction programme that will create a 3D model of the sequence. This is the final visual output of the exercise and will allow students to compare multiple sequences, observing the affect that even single point mutations can have on proteins. Further links can then be made to genetic disorders such as cystic fibrosis and sickle-cell anaemia.

This approach not only improved IT skills in the classroom, but also helped students build a tool that would advance their understanding of molecular biology and genetics. By following this process, they could clearly see how one step leads to another instead of just memorising names of enzymes and steps in metabolic chains. And with so many students being visual learners, these combined techniques greatly improved the uptake and understanding of these difficult concepts.

Improving learning potential for the future

Computer science can significantly improve a student’s learning potential in biology, by enabling them to be taught subjects like molecular biology and genetics in a far more visual way. However, this concept could be taken much wider than biology. Physics and chemistry can also be challenging to visualise from textbook learning and could benefit from students employing programming techniques such Snap! to help visualise complicated sequences. This approach would not only embolden them by helping to nurture their intellectual curiosity but also considerably enhance their learning potential, academic success and overall career aspirations.

W: TASIS England