Increased enrollment could bolster sciences

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Many of Yale’s science departments could witness a rise in the number of majors and increased course offerings for non-majors if the University goes ahead with a proposal for the addition of two new residential colleges.

But for some departments these benefits would likely come at the expense of faculty shortages and a strain on lab spaces unless the University allocates more resources, faculty members said.

The addition of two new colleges may place stresses on science-related facilities, such as the Kline Biology tower.
Victor Alquicira
The addition of two new colleges may place stresses on science-related facilities, such as the Kline Biology tower.

The expansion would not benefit all departments equally. While some smaller majors currently facing attrition in student enrollment would get a greater boost from the projected increase of roughly 600 students, more popular majors — such as molecular, cellular and developmental biology — already have near-capacity enrollment and would have to restructure course offerings to accommodate the 12 percent increase, faculty said.

The Biology Department — which has more majors than any other science — would be able to absorb the increase in enrollment, but only after some minor structural changes in the number of introductory and lecture courses offered each semester, MCDB chairman Tom Pollard said.

Pollard said the major’s larger introductory classes are currently at capacity. But if the creation of the new colleges bring an influx of new science majors, he said, administrators would consider two different options for allowing more students to enroll in introductory classes, many of which are currently offered only once a year — either offering the classes both semesters or providing two sections of the same class in one semester.

Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said the University will need to add new faculty to teach popular introductory classes, such as pre-medicine and pre-engineering courses, if the expansion proposal is approved.

“We would have to add faculty in the sciences, particularly where there are already enrollment pressures,” he said.

The Biology Department would also have to obtain more lab space and resources — which are in shortage even with current student interest in the major — to accommodate the growth, Pollard said. The planned renovation of Sterling Chemistry Lab — scheduled to begin in 2009 — and expansion of science laboratory facilities on the Hill, which have been on the University’s agenda for several years, may help alleviate some of this strain, he said.

Attracting more teaching assistants for larger science courses that break into sections may also present a difficulty, considering the relatively fixed enrollment at graduate schools, he said.

Such issues could become more even pressing if the percentage of science-oriented students at Yale increases, DUS of molecular biophysics and biochemistry Michael Koelle said. He said the University has been making strong efforts to recruit students planning to major in the sciences in recent years, as evidenced by the class of 2011, which has “a remarkably high number” of students interested in the sciences, he said.

But several professors from smaller science departments, such as Astronomy, Physics and Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, said they would welcome the chance to absorb more students, especially given these majors’ recent trends of attrition.

Over the past decade, the number of students majoring in Yale’s sciences — particularly its Engineering and Physics departments — have declined significantly, Koelle said.

“Ten years ago, we had 40 to 50 percent more MB&B majors, and the same was the case in chemistry, engineering and physics,” he said. “There’s been a downward trend in student interest in these areas.”

Koelle said the major would be able to accommodate at least a 10 percent increase in students, even though they would not have enough teaching staff at present to teach a greater number of students.

The number of majors in MB&B has hovered at around 20 for the past three years, he said.

Physics DUS Meg Urry said the Physics Department could absorb a 15-percent increase in students pursing physics without “huge upheaval” and is eager to attract new majors.

Although the potential increase would come at the expense of larger class sizes, Urry said administrators could ensure the quality of instruction does not suffer by providing additional extracurricular support, such as study halls and tutorials for students. One plan being considered by the department would arrange for nightly physics “help sessions” in one of the new colleges, she said.

Urry said she would also consider expanding available lab spaces and hiring new physics faculty. She said she anticipates that new faculty would also bring more diverse research activities, especially in emerging fields, to the department — a development that would have important implications at the undergraduate level.

“There are many new fields in physics that weren’t around a decade or two ago,” she said. “Research experience is key to undergraduate education and future success in science. So having a lively research program in exciting new areas is really important in that respect.”

Salovey said the University will open up new faculty searches if the expansion proposal is approved in February, especially in key academic areas where such shortages could constrain growth. Dean of Undergraduate Education Joseph Gordon will lead a committee that will coordinate recommendations about the science departments’ various needs for additional instructors, material resources and facilities.

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