Huge science classes scare off students

’Tis the season to drop your classes. But while many a course may lose a Yalie or two to its demanding work or the beck of extracurriculars, those of us in a science course seem more likely to witness a dwindling of our ranks over the course of a semester or from one level of the course to the next. Though the humanities aficionados among us may argue that this attrition is to be expected in the dry and demanding science courses, I believe that the exodus of students from science is the result of a detrimental attitude ingrained in much of the Yale science community that needlessly alienates students, thereby losing potential scientists and doctors. Though science, with its long labs and blizzards of equations may need to work a bit harder to attract and to retain student interest, expanding student interest in science is essential, particularly considering the number of challenges — such as developing clean-burning fuel or alleviating the AIDS crisis — facing our generation.

The lack of interest in science is due not just to difficult course material, but also to a problematic attitude that prevails in science’s introductory courses. While other departments, like the English Department, tend to offer small classes on the great poets and introductory seminars to hone writing skills, the required introductory science classes are generally mammoth classes with hundreds of people, practically crying out about the indifference of the professors. Some departments, such as biology, require at least six semesters of these tremendous classes before a student is even qualified for a more specific topic. Though there are welcoming classes, like “Perspectives on Science” and a few select freshman seminars, these programs are tacked on as after thoughts to the stagnant central curriculum and often do not even count towards majors or requirements. Those who have willingly endured the rigorous requirements often still feel a measure of neglect. One biology major I know in the ecology and evolutionary biology track recently started a club to create a community around interest in E&EB on the grounds that little had been done to attract people to that rich and varied major.

What renders these problems of large, indifferent classes particularly frustrating is that they are not intrinsic to science education. A few enterprising state schools with programs geared toward attracting students and maintaining their interest in science have an astounding success rate with more students completing undergraduate degrees in science. These successful programs share an emphasis on smaller classes and frequent interaction with experienced scientists. Perhaps this coddling of students would be atypical of Yale, but with so many interested parties abandoning their science dreams, the current model does not seem to be the answer. For those who believe that the huge enrollment in introductory courses makes more personal attention impossible, I point to the highly standardized curriculum taught in other small introductory classes, such as math. The problem of volume of interest or standardization has clearly been met in other fields.

The most troubling attitude among those who resist change to the system is the argument that being a doctor or scientist is hard, and the weak must be turned away. Yes, those who wish to be doctors or scientists must be exceptionally dedicated to their fields. But the challenges of the material itself and the magnitude of the requirements should be sufficient to discourage ambivalent students, without the attitude of indifferent administrators.

Considering the global shortage of doctors and engineers, it is not only unnecessary but potentially harmful to turn people away from science. Particularly at a university where so many students are smart, passionate and capable, it is imperative that we lose the attitude and seek serious, viable plans for welcoming people into the sciences.

Jessie Ellner is a junior in Morse College.