How do the sciences stack up to the University’s other departments?

As Group IV majors make the long trek up Science Hill, the nearly-completed Biomedical Engineering Building serves as a reminder that science at Yale is not neglected. The University is slowly ascending the national rankings for engineering, after being out of the top 50 just over 10 years ago, and the biological sciences have garnered millions of dollars in funding from the National Institutes of Health.

Science at the University is on the rise and it has to do largely with a $500 million initiative and Yale President Richard Levin’s commitment to making its growth a priority. The University has also begun taking measures proposed in an academic review in 2003 to remedy the sheer distance a science major must travel to go to class, proposing that some classes be moved closer to Cross Campus. With the exception of engineering courses, most science classes are located well up Prospect Street, and many science majors have said this journey is the worst part of being a Group IV major. (Under Yale’s distribution requirements, Group IV refers to the sciences.)

The construction projects on Prospect Street demonstrate the increasing learning and research opportunities for incoming students interested in the sciences. Thomas Pollard, chair of the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department, said more expansion is on the horizon.

“We have plenty of room to grow,” he said. “We are building new biology labs, as well as new space for the forestry school. This stems from the commitment President Levin has shown to improve the sciences at Yale. We are only seeing the beginning.”

Most science majors have a senior lab requirement, which Pollard said is an essential learning experience for biology students. At schools like Princeton, where professional programs in the biological sciences do not exist, Pollard said this is impossible.

Yale also has what many schools focused on science lack — a liberal arts education. At Columbia and Penn, engineering students apply directly to the engineering school as high school seniors.

But some science majors complain that their humanities-oriented peers have an easier path to graduation, as Group IV disciplines require more prerequisite courses. Additionally, liberal arts majors can take simplified science classes which do not count towards any degree to fulfill distributional requirements. Science majors cannot find equivalent courses in the humanities departments, a imbalance they said is unfair.

Marshall Long, the chair of the Mechanical Engineering Department, said that forced liberal education is a benefit for science students and is one factor that makes Yale unique.

“The engineering school is not really a separate school, and we don’t have a separate admissions, so all of our undergraduate students have to fulfill the Yale College distribution requirements as well as their science ones,” Long said. “This means that our students get a broader education than they would in any other engineering program.”

This liberal arts education makes Yale science majors more competitive for admissions to graduate school and jobs after college, he said.

Engineering at Yale boasts a student to faculty ratio that is nearly one to one, making Yale a different place from schools that focus more heavily on the physical sciences, such as MIT, where individual students may get less attention.

“Our course selection is somewhat limited because our faculty is small,” Long said. “But, this year we have 13 mechanical engineering majors, and 12 faculty members. Nowhere else will you find that kind of ratio. It also makes research as an undergrad really productive.”

Another physical science chair, Charles Bailyn of the Astronomy Department, agreed that while there are fewer science majors at the University than at its peer institutions, Yale students enjoy similar if not greater success than those elsewhere because of high faculty to student ratios and flexible curricular choices.

If a student desires, research opportunities and close contact with faculty are readily available at early stages in their college careers, Bailyn said. The freshman-only “Perspectives on Science” program allows first-year students to partake in seminars led by premier science professors focused on recent developments.

“Especially in our department and the Physics Department, pretty much every undergraduate ends up doing research and working together with a faculty member, often one on one,” Bailyn said. “Our students often have other interests, and may also be musicians or politicians as well as scientists. The faculty have grown to expect that, and so they don’t have the expectation that students be chained to the lab all day long.”

Students with varied interests said distributional requirements allow them to explore courses in which they do not have an extensive background. For the Class of 2009, changes to these requirements may affect their experience at Yale. Starting next fall, the amount of courses offered as Credit/D/Fail will increase to an amount never before seen at the University. This comes at a cost — not being able to use these credits to fulfill distributional requirements.

Those science courses that will likely be affected by the referendum attract many non-science majors. Courses such as Bailyn’s “Frontiers and Controversies in Astrophysics” attract a vast amount of students with little scientific inclination.

“Despite having no knowledge of astrophysics coming in, I’ve been incredibly stimulated by the material … without being overwhelmed by what might be considered irrelevant facts,” said Isaac Klausner ’05, a literature major and student in Bailyn’s class.

Melanie Loftus ’05, an environmental studies major and varsity swimmer, said certain science majors and courses at Yale, often those which cannot be taken as Credit/D/Fail, can be too much of a burden for students who participate in many extracurricular activities.

Loftus said she originally intended to go pre-med, but changed her mind because the academic workload on top of her time-consuming athletic commitments, was overwhelming.

“I found that being a science major is one of the hardest things you can do here at Yale,” she said. “Many of the science courses are geared toward exceptionally gifted people, who are really willing to go after help. But doing science at Yale is one of the most formative things I’ve done … and has introduced me to the most interesting classes I’ve taken here.”

Loftus said she likes that Yale offers multidisciplinary science majors, such as environmental or cognitive science, which allow students interested in science to branch out to other intellectual interests.

“With environmental science, you can concentrate more on the sciences or on policy,” she said. “In general, Yale also offers a lot of nonscience courses that could be relevant for science majors in direct or indirect ways. The History Department, for example, has so many courses that could fill in the spaces of your interests.”

Pollard said Yale’s reputation as a humanities-focused university is unwarranted, since about 13 percent — the largest percentage in any one major — of incoming freshman intend to major in some form of biology.

Some students said that because of negative pressure, science majors tend to change to humanities majors as sophomores or juniors.

Biology major Kathryn Blair ’07 said there is some truth behind the reputation of the University’s science departments playing second fiddle to humanities, but science majors and faculty have built up strong relationships amongst each other in spite of it.

“It is a nice community,” she said. “The professors are great and as strong as those in the humanities.”

Blair said that if students have an open attitude and are willing to take on a challenge, they can get a lot out of difficult science classes. She said in her experience, older students were often willing to support and mentor underclassmen to help them get through more difficult courses.

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