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Biology For Engineers

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2005 Annual Conference


Portland, Oregon

Publication Date

June 12, 2005

Start Date

June 12, 2005

End Date

June 15, 2005



Conference Session

Bringing Biology into Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

10.259.1 - 10.259.7

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Paper Authors

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Arthur Johnson

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Biology for Engineers

Arthur T. Johnson University of Maryland College Park, MD


There is a long history of basic science courses taught to engineers by practitioners of those sciences. Thus, basic physics has traditionally been taught by physicists, chemistry by chemists, and calculus by mathematicians. As it becomes more and more clear that all modern biology should be added to the list of basic sciences that all engineers should be introduced to, it is thus natural that introductory biology courses should be taught by biologists. Or should they?

There was a time when physics, natural science, and philosophy were all part of the same study of the workings of the universe. When chemistry began to develop its own set of studies, and theology separated from the natural sciences, but the life sciences were still largely unknown, physics became the science to encompass the broadest applications. So were born specialties such as physical chemistry; applications of physics to the life sciences continue to this day. Indeed, the Bernoulli equation partitioning energy within a moving fluid was originally developed for the flow of blood. Physics, therefore, based on a set of relatively simple principles, is expansive enough to be relevant to engineering and other sciences, even when taught by physicists.

Mathematics falls into another category. Whereas physics attempts to explain the workings of the natural world, mathematics attempts to idealize the world. Thus, mathematics taught without real-world applications can become self-absorbed.

Chemistry and biology are largely descriptive sciences, not idealized like mathematics, nor succeeding in reducing their sciences to a small number of basic principles like physics. Thus, both chemistry and biology are relevant to engineering, but often fail to excite engineering students because a general framework in which scientific facts may be categorized has not been established. Unlike physics and mathematics, that can be understood and learned with a relatively simple set of principles mixed with logical reasoning, chemistry and biology are sciences that rely heavily on memorization of volumes of descriptive facts and nomenclature.

Engineering is part science and part art. Scientific knowledge used by engineers is classified and organized in a way that allows easy recall when the art component of engineering requires it. It is no wonder, then, that engineering is based on the relatively simple studies of physics and mathematics.

For engineering students to truly appreciate chemistry and biology, these two sciences should be taught as much as possible with a small set of simple, but universal, principles, like physics, and with relevant and interesting applications, like mathematics. It is highly unusual

“Proceedings of the 2005 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright ©2005, American Society for Engineering Education”

Johnson, A. (2005, June), Biology For Engineers Paper presented at 2005 Annual Conference, Portland, Oregon.

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