Columbia considers adding science core

All undergraduates at Columbia University already take the same five core classes. Soon they may have one more course in common.

Officials at the university — which already requires students to take core humanities courses and fulfill other distribution requirements — are considering adding a science class to the school’s signature core curriculum. Under the new policy, which may be implemented next year, one science class would become part of the core and required for all students.

In New Haven, Yale is also considering changes to its own science curriculum as part of the current Yale College academic review. But Charles Bailyn, an astronomy professor who leads the review’s physical sciences working group, said a move like Columbia’s would be unlikely at Yale.

To test the program, Columbia is running a pilot program this year for 20 sophomores and juniors. The class will include lectures, a weekly seminar, and 10-20 pages of reading a week. Students will not receive credit, but get paid $400 for participating in the program. The seminars cover topics ranging from astronomy to biology, and different professors teach each session. When the pilot program ends, students will provide Columbia officials with feedback.

Kathryn Yatrakis, Columbia’s dean of academic affairs, told The New York Times that the school has not yet determined whether all students will take the course next fall.

Students at Columbia praised the proposed addition.

“I hope that this will help elevate the perception of the value of science in a liberal arts education to the same par as classics and writing,” Columbia senior Carla Goudge said in an e-mail.

Under Columbia’s current core curriculum guidelines, students take three science classes, but the school does not specify which ones they must take.

Some students said they did not foresee the curricular change as a burden.

“In any case, the new science core class that’s in the works would replace that additional third semester,” Columbia junior Isaac Kohn said in e-mail. “So we’re not facing an impending science requirement; it’s more like an impending change in the requirement, or perhaps a shift in focus, even a centralization.”

Bailyn said such a change at Yale is highly improbable, although not necessarily a bad idea.

“It’s sort of as if you were to require ‘Perspectives on Science’ for the whole college, which would not be a stupid idea,” he said.

Nevertheless, Bailyn said that a single required science class would run contrary to the philosophy behind Yale’s curriculum. The academic review’s goal in restructuring the math and science requirement is to create classes that interest students, he said.

“As soon as someone starts talking about Group IV, you know they are talking about distribution requirements and not about learning,” Bailyn said. “We are trying to generate courses that are good enough that people don’t worry about fulfilling requirements.”

To do so, Bailyn’s academic review subcommittee will be surveying students later this month for their opinions on science education at Yale. He said that students who receive the survey will be non-science students, as defined by an as-yet-undetermined formula. He said that while he hopes for opinions from students who do not receive the survey, response to the questionnaire is critical.

“The one thing about scientists is that we like data,” he said. “If you get a response rate of 30 percent, you’re going to have a hard time convincing the science faculty to do anything.”

In an e-mail to students, Columbia administrators indicated that they were running the pilot program for similar reasons.

“As scientists, we think it is important to do an experiment before reaching conclusions,” the program’s leaders wrote.

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