Life explained differently: two new intro biology classes

7.015 and 7.016 added to the slate of biology GIRs to contrast and relieve classic 7.012

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: A previous version of this article misrepresented the content of 7.016. Despite the description in the course catalog, 7.016 teaches the same amount of biochemistry as the other biology GIRs.

The biology department launched two new introductory biology classes this term, 7.015 and 7.016, bringing the total number of introductory biology classes to five. 7.015 is the first intro biology class to cater towards students who come from a stronger biology background. 7.015 also incorporates discussion-based recitations and guest lectures, in contrast to the standard lecture format of the other 7.01x classes.

After last year’s 7.012 over enrollment (hitting 835 students), the new 7.016 course eased the class size, taking in 325 students. Currently, 7.012 is capped at 550 enrolled students while 7.016 has 40 students.

All five intro biology courses (7.012, 7.013, 7.014, 7.015, and 7.016) share a common curriculum core that makes up approximately 50 percent of each class. Previously, the only intro biology class offered in the Fall was 7.012, while 7.013 and 7.014 were offered in the spring. According to MIT’s subject listing, 7.012 emphasizes a genetic approach to biology, 7.013 focuses on human biology, and 7.014 specializes in ecology and biogeochemical cycles.


When MIT stopped accepting AP Biology credit as a substitute for the biology General Institute Requirement (GIR) in 2007, there were no plans at the time to offer a different version of the GIR for those who had taken advanced biology courses in high school. According to 7.015 instructor Dr. Leah Okumura, 7.015 is the department’s attempt to “really provide something extra for students who have already taken a good amount of biology in high school.” 7.015 has a different class structure from the standard 7.012 format. About half of the recitations are also discussion-based and the class hosts guests lecturers. To make up for having fewer midterms and problem sets (7.015 has 2 midterms and 4 problem sets instead of the usual 3 and 7), 7.015 has extra readings, discussions, and writing assignments.

“We prefer to call it the enriched version [of intro biology],” she said. “It’s not necessarily more advanced, but we use different curriculum materials and a different strategy for teaching biology.”

Kathryn M. Farris ’17 said she enjoyed the new spin on the core curriculum.

“I was attracted to 7.015 because I felt like it offered a more current, real-life approach to biology, which sounded a lot more interesting to me,” Farris said. “I think one of the best parts about it is that the TAs and professors are all really open to feedback from us (the students) as to how we can improve the structure and pacing of class.”

Luisa R. Kenausis ’17 added, “Personally, I find the level of detail we go into in lecture really cool,” said “But the best part is the guest lectures. Every so often, a scientist in a field related to the current module comes in and gives a talk on their research and work.”

Okumura teaches the course alongside Professors Michael Laub and Hidde Ploegh. The course is designed around six modules: antibiotic resistance, influenza, genetics and genomics, biotechnology, the microbiome, and diabetes.

“With those six lenses, we’re able to teach all the fundamental principles of biology and how those principles relate to the biology that goes on all around us in the world and that you see in the news all the time,” Okumura explained. “It really makes it relevant. We get at that relevance by reading popular press articles and having discussions and having students do in-depth presentations about particular topics within those fields.”

The idea for the course was first floated around two years ago by Chris Kaiser, then head of the Department of Biology. However, Okumura says that it wasn’t until a year ago that the design for the course really got underway. The module topics were picked based on their relevance in the news, the professors’ expertise, and the shared requirements for an intro biology course.

There are currently 40 students enrolled in the mostly freshman class, a smaller number than the instructors were initially expecting.

“I think there are a few factors that went into that,” Okumura said. “I think, first of all, students are less inclined to take a course that hasn’t been offered before because they don’t know what to expect. I also think that the word got out on the street somehow that this was the harder class. Nobody can really say that. Nobody’s taken this class before, so there’s no way to know if it’s actually harder or not.”

Farris agreed with Okumura saying, “My one complaint about the class would probably be that since it’s the first year they have it, there are no past exams to study from so it’s a little harder to study for than the other 7.01x’s, I think.”

Okumura envisions that the format of the class will remain the same in future years, but that the module topics might change. Although it’s not yet clear which semester 7.015 will be offered in the long-term, Okumura says that the department has made a commitment to supporting 7.015 in the long run.

“It’s really cool to see the real-time applications of the concepts we’re learning — it’s a great reminder that we’re learning material that’s extremely current and relevant to the field of biology today,” added Kenausis.


Of the two new bio classes offered in the fall this year, 7.016 more closely resembles 7.012 in lecture, homework, and recitation style. Like 7.012, 7.016 is geared towards students with or without a background in biology. Professors Barbara Imperiali, Angelika Amon, David C. Page, and Dr. Diviya Sinha have taken the helm in developing and teaching the new class.

“For several years with biology being made an institute GIR, the class that was being run in the fall was truly overburdened,” explained Imperiali. “The numbers were too large and we were having to video-remote the class. The department made a commitment to the Institute that we would run another large class so that every student would have the chance to be in the classroom and participating directly rather than through a remote system.”

In addition to easing crowding, the class is piloting the use of clickers in an intro bio class to try and receive real-time feedback. However, some students have expressed frustration at having to buy the iClicker 2’s.

“I was annoyed by the fact that we were required to buy a different clicker than the one most people use in 8.01TEAL,” commented Teresa C. Hegarty ’17. “I think it would make sense to use the same type of clicker for all clicker classes, but I like the instant feedback and clarification that clicker questions provide.”

The first half of the class covers the foundational material shared by all 7.01x biology classes, while the second half moves into topics that the professors found particularly interesting. These include cancer, evolution, fluorescent proteins, the cell and signaling, and medically-relevant topics.

“One of my goals for the class was to take topics in biology that are in the news, that people are thinking about, that are on the cutting-edge of medicine, and sort of connect it to the basics and use them as tools to teach people basic biology,” said Amon.

Both Amon and Imperiali said that they have had a surprising amount of fun teaching an introductory biology class so far.

“I think it’s a real honor to have all these freshmen in our class,” said Imperiali. “We get to give them a great course in the first semester that they’re at MIT. We realized the first day of class that it was probably their very first class at MIT.”

Amon added, “We said to them in the beginning, ‘My goal is to make all of you Course 7 majors.’ That has to be the goal ­— to get people excited and interested in biology.”