Before 14 colleges, cultivate sciences

As spring settles in at Yale, the scent would indicate that sprouting — and soon to blossom — is a garden of science unlike any planted by the University before.

Yale West, the 137-acre former Bayer facility that will be almost exclusively dedicated to scientific research. Construction of new buildings on Science Hill. Expansion of the science and engineering faculty. A fresh science requirement for the class of 2009 and beyond.

These steps will, no doubt, propel forward University President Richard Levin’s goal to make Yale a premiere science institution. Cutting-edge research will thrive. Faculty hiring will flourish. And, inevitably, the effects will trickle down to undergraduates.

But probably not for a decade or two.

Such initiatives, after all, are not coming from the ground — or bottom — up. They are top-down and administration-heavy, not student- or professor-driven.

In most years, at most universities, that might be acceptable. But Yale carries a unique burden in 2008. As the University begins planning to build a pair of residential colleges on Science Hill, Levin and others have repeatedly touted one particular benefit: the sciences, they say, will become a more integral part of undergraduate academic culture.

But such a shift in culture cannot happen on its own. Indeed, the challenge is only half answered by the push we have seen of late. What still remains to be tackled is the all-important pull: the creation of legitimate incentives that will ensure that students of all academic breeds see reason to trek up Science Hill twice, if not five times, a week and that science majors experience the same perks that non-science majors currently do, such as generally superb teaching and interesting seminars.

But we cannot wait for 2012. The seeds for bottom-up integration must be planted now, not on day one of colleges 13 and 14. For classes currently enrolled, the status quo is insufficient. And the science/non-science divide is too stark.

So what can Yale do now, to prepare for the fall semester? For one, create more entry points for non-science majors. Although biomedical engineering, the environment and quantum physics, to name a few examples, are at the forefront of modern social discourse, such topics take a backseat for far too many students during their time in New Haven. Sure, we have Current Issues in Biological Science, but the list essentially stops there.

More important, though, are the current undergraduate science students who are frequently left with no academic options beyond huge, poorly-taught lectures and a dearth of seminars. In short, the science departments are not serving their undergraduates well enough today.

The University should have a visceral reaction to purchasing 137 acres for millions in cash without also investing as much in teaching and in science instructors who are genuinely excited to teach undergraduates. Too common is the science-minded student who comes to Yale for a top-notch education — and finds one — but also encounters uninspiring instruction and delivery in all but one or two of her classes on Science Hill, especially those dreaded prerequisites.

Speaking of prerequisites, our proposed shift in strategy, we think, amounts to one, too: a common-sense step we need to take before Yale’s sciences — and undergraduate science experience — can truly flourish.