Science courses don’t match Yale’s rhetoric

An understanding of science and technology is increasingly important for educated debate, public policy and daily life. Reasonably, Yale has emphasized the importance of engaging with science during an undergraduate career — even if one is studying English or sociology. This emphasis on science for all is valuable; however, its implementation in the undergraduate curriculum falls far short of its noble goals.

Under both the old distributional requirements and the new ones, all students must take at least two science classes. The Yale College Programs of Study explains not only that “acquiring a broad view of what science is, what it has achieved, and what it might continue to achieve is an essential component of a college education,” but also that the study of science includes “theoretical inquiry, experimental analysis, and firsthand problem solving.” The requirement demands much from the two science classes that the typical non-science student will take in his four years at Yale, but few classes that are actually used to fulfill this requirement meet these lofty goals.

I have divided the current science offerings into four relevant categories: the classes for science majors only, the guts, the pseudo-guts and the successes — the classes that come closest to achieving the goals of the science requirement.

The classes for science majors are not good candidates for fulfilling the stated goals. The majority of science classes are upper-level classes that require at least one Yale science class as a prerequisite. Most non-science majors are not going to be taking these classes. The introductory classes may be accessible for non-science majors, but they are very broad survey classes designed to be the building blocks for further science studies — the student who is not continuing in the subject may take little long-term value from one of these. That they are filled with science majors and premeds makes them even less attractive for non-science majors.

The guts are an elusive species that is now quite endangered. While their characteristics — with easy at the top of the list — are well-known, few classes actually provide the combination of light material and easy grading. Besides contributing almost nothing to the goals of the science requirement, the gut is basically gone. Whether through departmental pressure or because of the embarrassment of being a professor who teaches a gut, the gut class at Yale has largely been converted to what I’ve termed the “pseudo-gut.”

The gut class covers simple material, has little work and has easy grading. The pseudo-gut treats simple material, but the similarities end there. The pseudo-gut requires substantial amounts of work, including things like long papers that are more busywork than true research. They also require regular homework, of course. The pseudo-gut can often be identified on course evaluations by warnings about grading that is tougher than would be expected — tough grading is a classic way a professor demonstrates to students that a given class is most certainly not a gut. Unfortunately, these classes are just as lacking in substantive treatment of real science as guts are.

What I’ve called the “successes” are the classes that substantially achieve the goals of the science requirements in ways that are accessible for non-science majors. These classes go into enough detail on a subject that they actually involve real science, like one would expect at the college level, rather than material one might find in Popular Mechanics. They significantly engage with science not just from a historical or informational perspective but from an analytical one. They teach part of a subject in sufficient depth that a student can take some meaningful knowledge from the course without taking any further courses. The Astronomy Department, perhaps because it has few majors, seems to have gone the furthest in developing classes that are engaging and challenging that won’t kill someone who isn’t a physics major, but won’t insult someone who took a moderate amount of high-school science. The course offerings of the other science departments, however, have a primary focus on classes for majors and are balanced with a sprinkling of guts and pseudo-guts.

If we are really to take to heart the idea that every liberal arts major should substantially engage with science during his four years at Yale, we need more successes. There are students who have very little background in the sciences and those who spent substantial time on science in high school but have now turned toward something else. We should work to fulfill the needs of both groups, but the guts and pseudo-guts have nothing to offer either.

Patrick Ward is a junior in Branford College. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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