Introductory College Mathematics for the Life Sciences: Has Anything Changed?

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This paper focuses on issues concerning the introductory college mathematics sequence with an emphasis on students interested in the life sciences, and concentration on the time after the publication of BIO2010 (BIO2010 in Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists, National Academies of Science, Medicine and Engineering, Washington, 2003). It also explores the potential uses of books targeted at introductory mathematics courses for life science majors today. As relevant background, we look at the evolution of the way that calculus has been taught over the past 50 years, including at the high school level. We also explore the implications of changes in technology and course delivery, such as online education. As we discuss different books and introductory course ideas, we focus on the needs of biology students, the inclusion of real-world problems and models, the role of technology, and the impact of data science. The paper is organized as follows: Sect. 1 provides some personal background with calculus dating back to the 1970s, and changes in calculus prior to BIO2010. Section 2 introduces goals for an introductory mathematics sequence and evaluates the calculus sequence in light of those goals. Sections 3–7 discuss various issues that will help to understand issues and challenges for introductory mathematics for the life sciences: Calculus in high school (Sect. 3), equity issues relative to calculus and other math topics (Sect. 4), the impact of online education (Sect. 5), math as a stumbling block for college students (Sect. 6), and the increasing importance and value of teaching data science (Sect. 7). Section 8 reviews the development of books in light of these issues and challenges. The last section (Sect. 9) summarizes conclusions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number87
JournalBulletin of Mathematical Biology
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 1 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Immunology
  • Mathematics(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Pharmacology
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Computational Theory and Mathematics


  • Calculus
  • Equity
  • Introductory mathematics
  • Life sciences

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