Astro. majors are rare



David McIntosh ’07 and Brendan Cohen ’05, Yale’s only astronomy B.A. majors, have different plans for the future than most astronomy B.S. majors — astronautics and teaching rather than graduate-level astronomy. Both said they were surprised more students have not chosen the non-professional B.A. major, designed for students “interested in the subject as a basis for a liberal education,” according to the University course guide.

Although there are currently more than 20 astronomy graduate students at Yale, astronomy is one of the smallest undergraduate majors in the College. Astronomy chair Charles Bailyn said the small numbers benefit astronomy majors — of which there are currently only seven total — by providing individual attention to each student in higher-level classes.

But Astronomy Department faculty members said they hope more students will pursue an astronomy B.A. degree in coming years, after undergraduates become aware of changes made to the major last spring. The changes, intended to attract students with wide academic interests, reduce the number of required courses and allow for more flexible class substitutions.

Bailyn said the new curriculum, enacted this semester, has made the major more accessible to pre-meds and other students with broader goals than the study of astronomy.

“Last year we realized the B.A. had all sorts of rules and regulations, and no one could remember why they were in there,” Bailyn said. “We want more people taking astronomy who aren’t going to be astronomers.”

He said one improvement was replacing the “Introduction to Observing” course requirement with the more general “Research Methods in Astronomy.” The latter class includes instruction in computer programming, observing and other hands-on activities.

Though the changes may attract more students to the B.A. major, Bailyn said, other impediments still exist. While many undergraduates may take 100-level astronomy classes and have positive experiences, the fact that those courses do not count towards the B.A. or B.S. degree may deter students from pursuing astronomy, Bailyn said.

“Still, it should be said that the main teaching we do in astronomy is for non-majors,” Bailyn said. “We choose many of our strongest teachers for the 100-level classes. The subject is good for non-majors because the questions we ask are highly accessible to everyone. While it may not be easy to figure out the age of the universe, it’s not hard to understand what the question means and why it’s important.”

Astronomy Director of Undergraduate Studies Richard Larson said he thinks the current small number of astronomy majors is not unusual, but he said slightly lower interest may result from a general decline in undergraduate study of the physical sciences, unspecific to astronomy.

“Yes, space programs were once hotter stuff and a bigger deal than they are now, and that could made a difference, but I think any change in student interest really just indicates a broader cultural change in our science education,” Larson said. “Students seem more risk-averse now, and the science we do is hard. It requires a lot of work and dedication without very great or immediate rewards.”

Larson said the number of undergraduate astronomy majors, many of whom have gone on to become journalists, teachers and civil servants, has always been too small to record any telling statistics.

Astronomy professor Robert Zinn, who teaches the new introductory research class, said students considering the major are commonly deterred by the difficulty of required classes, especially for the B.S. degree.

“In astronomy everything builds up on top of other things, so, if you’re not a top-notch student at calculus, you won’t be a top-notch student at quantum mechanics,” Zinn said.

But Zinn said the low number of students in the major does not mean the department’s resources are being wasted.

“There is not a moment that the telescopes go unused, if not by undergraduates, then by graduate students and professors,” he said.

Most other Ivy League colleges have comparable numbers of astronomy majors to Yale’s, though Harvard currently lists more than 20 undergraduates on its astronomy department Web site.

David Helfand, the astronomy chair at Columbia University, said Columbia has made an effort over the last five years to admit a larger number of students interested in science. Before this initiative, only about 50 of 1,000 students graduated as physical-science majors.

Helfand said the field of astronomy is naturally small, but the extremely low number of physical-science students resulted in wasted resources and an inflated professor-to-student ratio. He said the numbers have now begun to balance out among Columbia’s astronomy majors, as well as within other Columbia science departments.

Cohen, who is double-majoring in history of science, history of medicine, said he thought the curriculum changes, as well as the new student observatory on Prospect Street, may increase interest in the Yale astronomy major.

“I think in reducing the number of required courses, it will make students look at the major more closely if they are interested in a science,” Cohen said.

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