February 2011

Accreditation 2011 – turning the corner

The ASBMB Education and Professional Development Committee is exploring the possibility of offering accreditation for bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry and molecular biology.

 

Perhaps the biggest challenge to be faced by the pilot program will be the design of an assessment instrument. The sheer number of students to be evaluated renders the use of a standard examination virtually inevitable.

Background: to accredit, or not to accredit?

Biochemistry, molecular biology, and the combination of both biochemistry and molecular biology (hereafter referred to as biochemistry and molecular biology or BMB) have emerged as the majors of choice for large numbers of scientifically oriented college and university students across North America. On many campuses, enrollment in undergraduate BMB degree programs approaches or exceeds that of the well-established, centuries-old disciplines of mathematics, chemistry, physics and biology. This transformation from a fairly specialized subject pursued by a small cadre of aspiring faculty members and physicians into a widely recognized and heavily subscribed college major suggests the question, What role should the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology play in promoting and supporting high quality bachelor’s degree programs in BMB? If we are and wish to remain the preeminent professional society in biochemistry and molecular biology, shouldn’t we be as active in promoting high quality undergraduate education in our core discipline as we are in other areas, such as research?

Whenever our members find themselves discussing how ASBMB might act to promote the improvement and growth of high quality undergraduate education in BMB, the same question eventually arises: Why doesn’t ASBMB accredit bachelor's degrees in biochemistry and molecular biology? Despite persistent misgivings regarding the feasibility of implementation, its logical simplicity and directness, along with the precedents offered by several other disciplines, render the question impossible to ignore.

What’s in it for us?

An accreditation program for bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry and molecular biology constitutes a powerful vehicle by which the ASBMB can
* actively and visibly promote excellence and innovation in undergraduate BMB education,
* connect with and recruit aspiring young biochemists and molecular biologists on a nation-wide scale, and
* raise the profile and relevance of our society with BMB educators as well as professionals working in the commercial/industrial sector who often are frustrated with the heterogeneity in knowledge and skills exhibited by BMB majors emerging from different programs.

Receipt of an accredited degree will certify for prospective graduate schools or employers that the degree recipient in question has a) matriculated through a program whose curriculum and infrastructure meet the expectations of ASBMB and b) performed at a level competitive with his or her peers across the nation. Students graduating from lesser-known schools will be able to demonstrate their competitiveness with alumni of well-known programs. The prescription of minimum infrastructure and curriculum requirements by ASBMB will provide program faculty members with a lever to use in negotiations with administrators for personnel and other resources.

For the past three years, the members of the Education and Professional Development Committee, the regional directors of the Undergraduate Affiliates Network, and the members of the ASBMB council have engaged in vigorous discussions regarding the potential benefits, form and cost of an ASBMB-sponsored accreditation program for bachelor’s degrees in BMB. As is typical for so many things of this magnitude, many aspects were found to cut both ways. The wide reach that renders accreditation so attractive is inexorably linked to the logistical problems of working with hundreds of programs and many thousands of graduates.

Where do we go from here?

Much remains to be determined, tested and modified. However, with the help of grants from the National Science Foundation and the Teagle Foundation, we are ready to move beyond discussion to piloting a prospective model for the accreditation process. If this empirical venture proves productive, we should be in a position to phase in a full, national degree accreditation program during the next few years.

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