For nonmajors, Group IV filled by ‘gut’ courses

When professors have announcements to make, they usually deliver them during class.

This was not a viable option for professors Jay Ague and Mark Brandon, whose students have not been showing up to “Natural Hazards.” Ague and Brandon had to e-mail the class on Monday to tell them they have “noticed that attendance at class has been poor.”

Many students are anxious to complete Yale’s course distribution requirements, but Group IV classes for humanities majors are few and far between. Students frequently forgo selecting courses in which they are interested for courses that require as little time commitment as possible and will not hurt their GPA — commonly known as “guts.”

Professors in the sciences have been trying to change this perception by providing more courses which cater specifically to non-majors. Some students have said they appreciate the effort, though many are still dissatisfied with Yale’s array of options.



Thinking like engineers

Professor Roman Kuc, who teaches Electrical Engineering 101, “The Digital Information Age” — or “EE 101,” as many refer to it — said at least 90 percent of the students who take his course are non-science and non-math majors, yet he still enjoys teaching the class.

“We invite [students] to think like engineers for a term,” he said. “I think this is the best introduction-to-electrical engineering course that is being taught in this country.”

He said he tries to make the course accessible to everyone, though he recognizes that this goal can be a challenging one, given the broad spectrum of educational backgrounds in this area of study.

Two years ago, 300 students were enrolled in this class, but when the course was scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. the following year, that number dropped to 100, he said. Kuc said he found students were not motivated to participate in class because they were half asleep at the earlier time.

Although the class currently meets at 11:30 a.m., there are only 50 students enrolled. He said some students who were interested in taking the course began to request more instruction on digital information concepts. Consequently, some students who might consider taking the class decide not to take it because they are insecure about their ability to understand such concepts, Kuc said.

“I think that most of the students want to learn the concepts in all the courses they take,” he said. “Once they understand those concepts they should be able to apply them to their own major. They learn a lot in the course that is relevant to whatever they go into.”

While students currently can only take the class for a grade, he said that he considering allowing them to elect to take it Credit/D/Fail the next time the course is offered.

Sometimes students choose courses that fulfill certain requirements just because they fit into their schedule. For Cristina Aldrete ’05, Electrical Engineering 101 filled the vacancy left by a seminar that was full.

“This course was known as a gut [before],” Aldrete said. “The professor has made a conscious effort to question how to make it more challenging.”

As a non-science major, she said the more difficult subject material has forced her to learn. The administration should take into greater consideration that a majority of the students at Yale do not major in math or science, Aldrete said.



‘Shake ‘n’ Bake’

Professors Ague and Brandon, who team-teach “Natural Hazards,” both said “Shake ‘n’ Bake,” as some students refer to it, is designed to give a basic introduction to how the world works. Students may elect to take “Natural Hazards” Credit/D/Fail, which makes it that much more appealing to students searching for a Group IV.

This semester, 200 students are taking “Natural Hazards,” up from 135 last year, Ague said. But as the semester progresses, Brandon said that attendance levels drop, a trend which led him and Ague to e-mail the class.

“If you skip too many lectures you may run the risk of doing poorly on the final exam,” they wrote.

One student who wished to remain anonymous said she chose to take Natural Hazards because she heard it was easy but has found that the grading of assignments and exams has been “nitpicky.” Although she answered every question correctly on one exam, she got a 75 rather than a 100 because she missed “a few details,” but she is taking the course Credit/D/Fail and is not concerned, she said.

Mike Walker ’06, who is currently enrolled in “Natural Hazards,” said he decided to take this course to fill one of his Group IV requirements because it sounded interesting from what he had read in the Blue Book, even though it looked challenging. Like many students, Walker said he does not mind having distribution requirements.

“I think [the current curriculum] is perfect,” he said. “With Credit/D/Fail, you can get by pretty easily.”



‘The next big thing’

Professor Michael Frame, who teaches “Fractal Geometry,” recognized that 9 a.m. is too early for many students and created a detailed Web site with course materials to “equalize” a decrease in attendance rate. Even so, Frame said that about 75 percent of those enrolled attend each class.

Fractal geometry combines basic geometrical thinking with concrete examples that help enhance students’ understanding of the material, including pieces of artwork such as a Dali painting. In this way, Frame said, he works to make his course appeal to non-math majors by incorporating examples from the humanities.

“In humanities courses it’s easier to find courses at levels you can appreciate,” he said.

This course is not a gut — the average grade is in the B-/B range, so students must put in the work to reach the B+/A-/A level, he said.

“The real idea is that the things which are the most easy to teach are the things that most fascinate yourself,” he said. “I am encouraged by the fact that most of the students here really get into a subject.”

Justin Goff ’06 said he enjoys “Fractal Geometry,” though he most likely would not have chosen to take it had it not been for the Group IV requirement. He said he enrolled in the class after liking what he saw during shopping period. Although the course is taught at an introductory level, students have access to some cutting-edge concepts.

“A lot of people think that fractal geometry is going to be the next big thing — We get to study something so current without needing all the mathematical preparation,” he said.

Many students gravitate towards Group IV classes that go more into depth about more current topics, making the experience much more rewarding for those not majoring in math or science.

“I don’t want to waste any of my credits — I want to get the most out of every class I take,” Goff said.

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