Biology department proposing to amalgamate seven Hons/Spec programs into three

New students in the Department of Biological Sciences will likely only have three Honours and Specialization programs to choose from next year if a proposal to the government is successful.

The department, which currently offers seven Honours and Specialization degrees, is planning to condense these into three streams to better communicate the breadth, strength, and focus of biology programs. If approved by the provincial government, these changes will take effect for 2017-18.

The Department of Biology currently offers the following Honours and Specialization degrees:

  • Plant Science
  • Evolutionary Biology
  • Microbiology
  • Animal Biology
  • Ecology
  • Physiology
  • Developmental Biology


If the proposal passes, only three Honours and Specialization programs will be offered:

  • Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Sciences
  • Integrative Physiology
  • Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology

Admissions to Honours and Specialization programs for Plant Science, Evolutionary Biology, Microbiology, and Animal Biology will be suspended. Students in the programs being changed will be able to continue through their current degrees, but will be given the option of switching into one of the new programs. The remaining three biology programs (Ecology, Physiology and Developmental Biology, and Molecular Genetics) will be renamed (to Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Sciences, Integrative Physiology, and Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, respectively).

The Department of Biology’s two collaborative programs, Immunology (offered jointly with the Faculty of Medicine) and Paleontology (offered jointly with the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences), will remain unchanged.

Admissions to the four halted programs were halted the October 20 meeting of Academic Planning Committee, and the renaming of the three remaining Honours and Specialization programs were approved at the October 26 meeting of Academic Planning Committee of General Faculties Council. To be finalized, these decisions will need to be approved by the provincial government later this year.

Students in the three new programs will still be able to focus their degrees on certain subject areas, like plants or animals, by taking classes in those areas. Course offerings won’t be affected by the new degree names, Jocelyn Hall, Associate Chair (Undergraduate) of the Department of Biology, said.

“We’re not dramatically changing our programs — the courses are all still integrated in the new programs,” Hall said. “This way, it’ll just be easier for students to explore their interests … We really just want to provide flexible programs for our students that reflect these major areas in biological sciences.”

The changes also won’t affect biology grads’ eligibility for registering as a professional biologist with the Alberta Society of Professional Biologists.

The seven Honours and Specialization biology programs reflect the department’s history — many years ago, six different biology departments amalgamated into one. Alison Murray, an Associate Professor of Biology, said talk of changing the biology degree started after 2013, when the provincial government cut $147 million from post-secondary budgets. The Department of Biology, housing seven Honours and Specialization degrees, anticipated the possibility of being forced to cut its low-enrollment degrees. Historically, there are typically 10 students in Plant Biology, 10 students in Evolutionary Biology, 50-60 students in Microbiology, and 60-85 students in Animal Biology.

“There was a fear that small programs would be axed,” Murray said. “The push behind amalgamating was to make sure we had no small programs.”

The solution: bigger programs that housed more students.

“I think for the students and the teaching, there will be no difference,” she said. “It really was … to protect ourselves.”

Almost three-quarters of students in a 2015 survey of 554 students felt that there was “limited to strong” overlap between Honours and Specialization programs. The survey also found that 75 per cent of students felt that reducing from seven to three programs was between “acceptable” and “neutral”.

Professor and wildlife biologist Erin Bayne said that compared to many years ago, biological fields of study have since become more integrated with each other — individuals in Animal Biology must have a firm understanding of what is offered in Ecology, for example. The new programs will allow students to study the two at the same time, and will help professors in advising students throughout their degrees, Bayne said.

“The changes are about crafting what our department is now about — who we have as expertise, how we work together, and the things that we think are pathways in biology,” he added. “Before, there were more pathways. They didn’t constrain people but they just weren’t giving people the direction that they need.”

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