News’ View: Science for non-science majors

Seven years ago, the Committee on Yale College Education called on Yale to review its science curriculum, encouraging the University to create challenging science courses for non-majors that would be “similar in rigor but different in approach” to those for majors. A few years later, Yale unveiled a new set of distribution requirements that forces students to take two courses each in quantitative reasoning and the sciences, instead of permitting non-majors to take a total of three courses between the two categories.

These decisions were made in part because Yale has tried over the past two decades to establish itself as a center of scientific research and inquiry for the world. The University has allocated about $1 billion to the construction and renovation of its science and medical facilities, not including the money spent to acquire the West Campus. Yale wants even its English majors to take science classes here and be challenged by them.

But, even as Yale’s science programs move forward, its science course offerings for non-majors have not. Although courses have come and gone over the years, there remains a fundamental problem with the science curriculum here. Yale College still does not provide enough challenging yet interesting introductory science courses that can captivate the imaginations of those who don’t see themselves as scientists. As a result, the science requirement has remained for some a dreaded hurdle on the path to graduation, not the academic opportunity it ought to be. This should change.

In 2008, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology replaced its standard 300-plus person introdtory physics lecture with a series of smaller seminars. In response to research showing that basic concepts are learned best when learning is interactive, professors only lecture for a short while, ceding time to student questions, in-class problems and hands-on experiments. MIT, which apparently does have non-science majors, has seen a largely positive response to the initiative.

This kind of proposal is expensive, to be sure, but it makes sense. Smaller science classes would allow students who spend more of their time studying Emerson than Einstein to engage with the material taught up Science Hill. At the very least, it would force them to show up.

But while smaller classes would help, the focus of science classes should be examined as well. Just as the writing and humanities requirements can be fulfilled through classes like “Science (and) Fiction,” the science requirement should include options that allow for the entry-level study of wireless technology in Africa and the physics of great architecture. Students should be able to study the science behind the history and literature and events that fascinate them, not just the science behind their problem sets.

Yale should also do more to harness the talents of its strong science faculty by turning more of its leading scientists into prominent campus figures. Some of us are still not sure what exactly Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry Thomas Steitz, the recent Nobel Prize winner, studies.

Yale’s desire to be a beacon of science studies is admirable, but the University should not leave its non-science majors in the dark.


  • Jeffrey Park

    Its a light and tumble journey
    From the Old Campus to Becton
    Just a fine and fancy ramble
    to EVST 305

    But you can take the Blue Line Bus
    If its raining or its cold
    And the instructors there will love it
    If you do.

    Someone told me
    Its all happening
    in EVST 305
    I do believe it
    I do believe its true

    EVST 305b, Topics in Environmental Science, is a seminar that currently is populated by non-science majors, and there are several spaces still available. If you are closed out of a capped intro-science course and want an alternative, send email to and ask about the course.

  • @#1

    LOL. It would be sweet if Yale had more science classes like that…

  • Kai

    The author fails to mention perhaps the most glaring problem with the science requirement and that is that it doesn’t actually teach science. A rigorous explanation of the scientific method ought to be an absolute requirement, since this is perhaps the only or last time that any of these students will have to engage with science. Elder scientists can also be a tad eccentric and that can lead to many issues of communication. It seems that Yale has taken the approach of assuming that everyone enrolled is intelligent enough to have both gained exposure and explored the scientific method and its application, but even a quick review of the opinion articles of the YDN makes it immediately apparent that this is not the case. If you’re going to teach science, teach it. Don’t just discuss the findings in such a way that a cultural relativity argument can be made. I should be clear that I don’t think this is the fault of the professors but of whomever is responsible for designing to the science credit system.

  • FailBoat

    Yale Math majors can write a good essay and our Engineers can read Faulkner and Tolstoy, but our English and History majors can’t even take a derivative.

  • Yale07

    As a member of the undergraduate Science committee (which Dean Segraves chairs) during my last two years at Yale and as an MB&B major, I agree with the central point of this article – there should be more rigorous, interesting introductory science courses. However, I still have a problem with the concept of “science courses for non-science majors.” We continue to isolate science (both physically and academically) by making it seem like something scary when really, it’s not. I would bet that the vast majority of students at Yale took AP, IB or honors science classes in high school. I knew a number of people in my class who had excellent science preparation, in several cases better than my own, prior to coming to Yale. In spite of this, they sought out classes like “Porn in the Morn” or “rocks for jocks” (which was perhaps the biggest joke ever). They didn’t challenge themselves or even try to take something interesting. As a member of the committee in my junior and senior years, we emphasized the need for more courses like Bioethics. The suggestions in this article are good, but the key is that these courses do in fact need to be rigorous…

  • @Kai

    The science credit system is absurd…the fact that we spend 4-5 hrs/week (not including writing time outside of class) on labs that only apparently merit 0.5 credits while our humanities friends can get 1 credit for “Rocks for Jocks” is beyond a joke, it’s just not funny.

  • @4

    Patently false. The majority of Yale students took advanced math and science courses in high school. Personally, I have won awards in the sciences and probably have the same math test scores as you. But I’m not here to study math and science, it’s not what I care about or love, and that’s not how I want to spend my time – so I take guts so that I can focus my energies on the subjects about which I truly am passionate.

    Furthermore, if you think every science/math major is a good writer and critical thinker, you clearly don’t know what you’re talking about. Of course there are some extraordinary people here who are good at everything, but I have been in lots of classes where the engineering major taking a “fun humanities class” is clearly at the bottom of the ladder.

  • @4

    While derivatives aren’t exactly “advanced math,” they’re still farther along relative to the starting point of mathematics than, say, reading literature and writing basic essays are to the starting point of… well, reading and writing.

    In other words, a more accurate comparison would be, most English/History majors can’t derive, and most Engineers can’t write good, original essays with engaging criticism.

  • @7 & 8

    Yeah, but are the humanities courses cordoned off as “humanities courses for non-humanities majors”? No. And I can’t speak for engineering majors, but there were a number of Phi Beta Kappas in my major and in the other Bio-related majors as well as in Physics. I assume they can all write – pretty well. I was actually surprised at how many history majors complained in the history classes and seminars I took (I’m a science major) about difficulty, etc…

  • To #6

    AMEN to #6!

  • @ #6 and 10

    I’ll preface by saying i’m a double major in a hard science and a *very* purely humanities major… (this semester i’m taking two hard sciences, and advanced literature and english classes)

    The problem with taking only gut science classes is that you’re not getting a liberal arts education. There really is a mode of logical/analytic thinking, learned in the sciences, that most of the people in my humanities classes seem to lack. It’s frustrating to be a science(/humanities) major in an english class or a wgss class and listen to the seminar devolve into babble, while thinking *DO YOU REALIZE WHAT YOU’RE SAYING IS A BUNCH OF POLYSYLLABIC NONSENSE THAT IS COMPLETELY DIVORCED FROM THE PREMISES OF THIS CONVERSATION?* Really. I see very much among people who avoid science/math classes that their critical thinking skills are underdeveloped, and it’s very tedious to have a conversation with someone who can’t speak in a logical way. I truly believe that the droves of yalies who fear science classes are doing themselves a huge disservice and actually making themselves more stupid by not stretching their brains in a few rigorous science classes. I fully appreciate the value of the effort i’ve put into my humanities major, but i really do think that a quality science education is the best gift that an intellectual person can ever get. If more people had powerful scientific thinking skills, we wouldn’t have half a country that thinks evolution shouldn’t be taught in classrooms. The more frighteningly dogmatic branches of religious institutions would become increasingly untenable. People in this country would take a rational approach to energy policy and realize that we need to (frenetically) incentivize alternative energy or our own generation is going to be epically f***ed in the imminent future. I think if the people who ran this country were scientists, we would have rational and productive policies instead of a bunch of kindergardeners playing politician and allowing themselves to be the brainless pawns of a party ideology.

    Ok… this has gone on longer than i intended… but the point is that i think you’re underestimating how critically important a high quality science education, beyond what you get in high school, is to being a well cultured intellectual. I think that the powerful logical and analytic thinking skills of a scientist should be a prerequisite for any liberal arts degree worthy of Yale’s name.

    I hope you’ll decide to take a few challenging science classes. I promise it’s worth it.

  • Yale 08

    Ultimately, most Yale students don’t take science courses because of concern about more rigorous grading standards compared to the rest of Yale, particularly given that students may not feel as comfortable with science material and may have to compete in the same grade curve with a greater proportion of higher-caliber students than are usually represented in the average Yale course. To that end, what this article highlights is not only that there is a need to review the purpose of Yale’s science requirement and the availability of courses to fulfill it, but more importantly, that there is an urgent need to examine grading standards across departments.

  • yale11

    Amen to #11!

  • BR10

    What a pigheaded attitude: that you can’t benefit from taking a science class that isn’t a gut. Just because you got the same math scores on an aptitude test doesn’t mean expanding your knowledge in the subject is a waste of time.

  • @#12

    Is grading in the sciences really more rigorous than in the humanities? True, math and science classes may make it possible to do exceptionally poorly and get a C, but thanks to objective grading standards, you could also get an A every single time if you learn everything that you’re supposed to learn. That would be near impossible in the humanities, where it may be easy to get a B+ but the subjectivity in the grading process makes straight As unlikely. I’d be willing to bet that science majors have higher GPAs on average than humanities majors.

  • BR 10

    I think the main difference between intro science courses and intro courses in other disciplines is that intro science classes have a reputation for being dull and poorly taught, classes you have to get through so you can take the more fun upper level classes.

    Intro courses in other areas (Engl 125-130; Psyc 110) have reputations for being incredibly well-taught and fascinating (while still being rigorous). Perhaps if science departments (and math too) made more of an effort to improve the quality of their intro courses, to make them engaging rather than grueling, more non-science majors would be inclined to take them.

  • not true

    #15 is just plain wrong. The distribution of grades given in upper-division classes at Yale is something known to most Yale professors (from data compiled by Yale College) and the following is true: nearly all humanities grades are B+ or better. Natural sciences grades are much tougher. Social sciences are in between.

  • #15

    Well maybe I’m wrong about what the grade distributions actually are, but my point is this: in any science or math class, as long as you’re willing to work hard enough and able to grasp the material, an A is within reach, and it’s possible to get straight As in a semester with all QR and Sc classes (I’ve done it myself). In a humanities class, however, you might do all the reading and put huge amounts of time into the course, and still not get an A because the professor or TA makes a subjective decision about what grade to give you. I wasn’t disputing that most humanities grades are B+ or better, or that As are given in these classes, but is it the same people getting the As every time? In the sciences that is far more likely.

  • @#15

    Yes, grading in the sciences is more rigorous than in the humanities classes. Isn’t it circular reasoning to say that if you learn everything in a science course, you’ll get an A? Thanks Einstein, I think we already knew that. If science were easy, then EVERYONE would learn EVERYTHING there is to know, and no one would be complaining about their grades. But that’s not the case. Real science requires hard work and an analytical mind, and while science is more objective than the humanities, that doesn’t make it any easier to get a good grade. In fact, I think the subjectivity of the humanities make it so that it is easier to earn a good grade in a humanities course than in a science course. I’ve taken humanities classes where Sparknotes and last-minute papers were all that were necessary for me to do well in the class. NO WAY that would happen in a real science course.

  • MBB major

    Clearly, #15 has never taken a legitimate science course at yale. Take organic chemistry, take biochemistry, then tell me that it’s easy to get an A in those courses just by “learning everything you’re supposed to learn.” Science majors take tougher classes and get lower grades. To deny that is delusional.

    #16: This is partly true. However, I’ve found courses like CHEM 118 and MCDB 120 to be very well taught. They’re not too difficult, and there’s no reason that a non-science major shouldn’t be able to enjoy them.

  • #15

    Well I feel like I’m shamelessly bragging now but #20 has pushed me to it: I’ve taken Chem 124, Physics 180 and 181, Math 115 and 120 and gotten As in all of them. But I didn’t say it was easy–I said it was “possible” and “within reach” if you have the necessary aptitude and put in enough time, and I don’t think non-science majors should enroll in these courses unless they are really interested in them (they are sometimes well-taught) and they think they’ll be able to do well. Last semester I took a history class that I ended up spending almost as much time studying for as the rest of my classes combined, and I still ended up with an A-, the lowest of my grades that semester. I also know that there are people who have literally put in the maximum amount of time possible into studying for science classes and still not gotten As. But what I’m trying to say is that it’s possible to be “good at math and science” in a way that doesn’t really apply to the humanities, and if you can get an A in one hard science course you can probably do it in most others. There may be some history majors who have gotten an A in every single history class they’ve ever taken, but this would require quite a bit of luck because the grading is so subjective.

  • y11

    Kiddies, this is an easy one:

    Being able to read and write well will help any scientist and any mathematician in whatever career field they choose.

    Being able to derive won’t help a single English major. Period.

    Boom. End of argument.

  • @y11

    There’s more to science and math than just being able to derive (just like there’s more to English than reading overrated literature like Ulysses and searching for deep meaning in every book ever written). Science and math ARE applicable to a variety of careers. Math is obviously important to economics (something most Yalies should appreciate given how many want to go work in finance), statistics helps in a variety of careers, physics is applicable to architecture, driving (ever wondered why you shouldn’t tail the car in front of you too closely?) and life in general, etc etc (I could literally fill pages with all of this). Y11, I’m sorry you don’t appreciate science or math and you don’t view them as being important to your life. I’m not really sure what most English majors do with their lives, but you’ll probably need some math skills to survive in this world.

  • @y11

    Scientific reasoning skills will help every humanities major to make logical decisions, just as reading and writing skills are useful to any science major.

  • @#15

    Dude, first off, those are all intro science and math classes. Many of us science majors got As in those same courses too – doesn’t mean that we’re not gonna struggle with harder coursework down the road (I know I did). I absolutely do not agree with your contention that once you get an A in a science course, you’re most likely going to get As in all the other science courses you take. Consider anybody who’s an MB&B major – they have to take physics, chemistry and many bio courses. The odds that they’re equally excellent at physical chemistry and a graduate level biology course are not that high. Also, you don’t JUST regurgitate material on science exams (there are essays or sections where you have to analyze mock data and/or propose additional experiments) and many advanced courses require grant writing or papers at the end. You don’t mention whether you did any labs, but those can be just as subjective as humanities courses grade-wise (especially for large courses with multiple lab sections run by bitter TAs who really don’t want to be there…). Actually, I got all As in my 10 history courses at Yale but struggled with science work after the intro courses, so I had the opposite experience to you. The fact remains that it is EASIER to get all As (or mostly As) in humanities courses than in the sciences. Again, just look at GPAs of humanities majors vs. science majors – your position is not backed up by the data. Your experience is, I think, a very unique one (and I don’t mean to demean it, sounds like you’re a really great student). But prove us wrong – take physical chemistry or eukaryotic biology or quantum mechanics.

  • hey all

    The verb for taking a derivative is ‘to differentiate.’ I’m surprised nobody’s caught that yet.

    #22 is sooooo right… I use chemistry all the time… to make substitutions in recipes, to get stains out of my clothing… I once used redox chemistry to fix a pot that i had ruined by leaving it empty on a hot stove. I have enough biology knowledge to actually understand what my doctor is doing when i need treatment… or to realize that swine flu isn’t going to kill me, or why fad diets don’t really work.

    Science knowledge isn’t just useful for little applications in your daily life… it also keeps you from being fooled by people who would tell you that global warming isn’t something to be concerned about (for political reasons), or that evolution is a big hoax, or that condoms are ineffective at preventing disease transmission (religious authorities have said this in areas of the world worst stricken by AIDS)… really unconscionable crimes against science. And people believe this nonsense, because they don’t have an education in scientific thinking. Yale students believe these lies too (maybe not the third, but at least the first two). And yet there are still people in this thread who claim that science isn’t useful in their lives.

  • yalie

    The scary thing is that I’ve even met BIOLOGY majors at Yale who don’t believe that evolution happens…

  • By a conservative.

    Bush was a history (READ: humanities) major. End of discussion.

  • @#26

    Perfect. Precisely. Thank you. Just look at the massive amount of scientific illiteracy abounding in the humanities as arguments from false pretenses or emotion are perpetuated. It seems so obvious that science as a basis needs to be taught.
    @#27 – that person is not a biologist.

  • @27

    Yes, that does make me die a little inside. I’m not saying that all science majors are very good at scientific thinking. But I do believe that people with a good science education are much more likely to find a preponderance of evidence more convincing than a religious text.

  • @23, 24, 26

    Ridiculous. You think you need to be a science/math person to make “logical decisions?” That’s downright insulting.

    I’m a math person, I totally agree with y11, and I don’t have a problem with it. I’ll need to read and write well to be successful. If y11 is going to be a lit professor or novelist, he/she may literally never need more math than what you learn in high school.

    And, on that note, most of the intro math/science classes at Yale only actually teach what we’ve already learned in high school; to get any higher, you have to go through a series of prereqs, and I have no expectation whatsoever for a humanities major to do so just so they can make “substitutions to recipes” and gets stains out of their clothing.

    Seriously, #26, if you need Yale science classes for that, I don’t know how you got here in the first place.

  • #15

    I have taken some labs–Chem 126L, where I got an A-, and Physics 165L and 166L where I got As. The grading in the labs is somewhat more subjective than in lecture courses (but still not as much as in the humanities). I’m just about getting to the upper-division courses now…I’ll see how I do. But the math and science classes that are well-taught don’t require you to just “regurgitate material”–I think I worded my earlier comments poorly since they seem to have implied this. Good classes teach ways of thinking about a subject, not just information, and this is reflected in being required to do math problems or analyze mock data on exams, for example. “What you’re supposed to learn” includes the methodologies of how to do the problems or analyze the data, and if you’ve really mastered the material you’ll be able to apply it in new ways when they come up on exams. Sounds like # 25’s taken some really good science classes.

    I kind of regret starting this conversation because I think I’ve set some people on edge. I worded some things very poorly and in a way that could make some people upset–I’m sorry.

  • #27

    Actually, now that I think about it, the biology majors I know of that don’t believe in evolution are premeds. Typical, actually. They just care about good grades, and let the real science fall by the wayside.

  • Philosophe

    I, former yale philosophy major, look at (down on?) all of this with my skeptical glare.

    More rigorous: who cares?

    ps Have you ever read the Critique of Pure Reason?

  • Mcdb

    I’ve taken bunch of humanities and science courses. I’ve greatly enjoyed reading this whole thread and don’t really want to add anything except: Why isn’t anyone commenting on #11? He/She offered by far the most insightful, compelling comments and I wholeheartedly agree with everything #11 wrote.

  • @31

    The humanistic method of constructing an argument involves forming an interpretation and demonstrating why your interpretation is true. It holds that multiple interpretations may be equally valid. The process is inherently individualistic. You can take from a text whatever you would like, as long as you can support your interpretation. Do you see how this enables weak logic? You can interpret from a scriptural injunction to reproduce that birth control is inherently sinful. You can interpret that Haiti was devastated by an earthquake because they ‘made a pact with the devil.’ You can interpret gross fallacies – that racial integration and interracial marriage are destructive to society, that little girls suffer ‘castration anxiety’ when they believe their penises have been chopped off, that gay people must be terminated from government employment because they are a threat to national security – these are all tremendously influential historical interpretations that anyone today would recognize as lunacy. Of course, good work in the humanities is always done with a high degree of analytic rigor. But humanistic disciplines employ a method of argument that can easily be used (and has historically been used) to support any of these ridiculous notions. If any of these arguments were held to a standard of scientific proof, they would quickly be revealed for the shams that they are. They simply can’t be proven by scientific means, but they can be argued for at length by crackpot lawyers or historians or psychoanalysts etc.

  • Also @#31

    Thank you #36, it takes great patience to explain something that appears to be so obvious.

    Additionally, as someone above said, just check out the opinions articles of the YDN. If you want to talk about insulting, let’s talk about being subjected to conspiracy theory nonsense with zero evidence, no logical progression as support and not even an attempt to take advantage of the copious resources available on this campus including many world experts on these topics. It’s a small tragedy magnified by the power entrusted to these individuals as they move out in to the real world.

    I would classify this issue as a very serious problem for a university that considers itself a producer of world leaders in industry, politics and research.

  • y10

    how about if the humanities and sciences people get together and discuss how the social sciences are really the departments without rigor and with insanely easy grading standards?

  • @38

    How about not?

  • Lynwood

    The real point that (I think) the News is trying to make about the science requirement is that, as the system stands right now, it is not really working as it does not promote the liberal arts education it advertises.

    I have taken one big science lecture at Yale and two science seminars for non-majors. I learned infinitely more in the seminars. Quantum Physics and Beyond, for example, was extremely engaging and pertinent. The reading and discussion were fantastic, and the seminar format makes it easy (easier) to get into the material.

    The big lecture classes assume a lot of knowledge going into the classes, and are often boring. There is little connection between you, your professor, and your TA. People give their clickers to their friends so they don’t have to go to lecture, which defeats the purpose of having that class at all.

    As a history major, I really appreciated taking those smaller classes because they were challenging and I learned a lot about science that I never would have in the rest of my life. Being able to ask questions and discuss ideas should be the basis of every class at Yale.

  • FailBoat

    If you are in college and still think that your SAT scores are a good indicator of your mathematical ability, you are truly mathematically illiterate.

  • dk

    All this talk about liberal education, but from people who focus on whether you’ll use it for a career? That’s not liberal education. That’s community college training. Well, it would be if it weren’t a gut course for non-majors. Yale professors should uphold intellectual standards instead of pandering for popularity. Some do, some don’t.

  • Y 06

    I went from pre-med, to psych, to history, to history of science and medicine. Now I teach math and science at the middle school level after working as a journalist for a few years out of school.

    I went up Science Hill and I came back down because the intro classes were not well taught and were not collaborative in the slightest. Because I preferred not to spend ALL of my time studying, I did not do well in these classes despite my sincere interest in learning the science. I also agree with the others who have said the science courses are MUCH harder–because of the lack of collaboration and the degree of competition (for asking a question in section, I regularly encountered eye-rolling and snorting from classmates…never happened in history courses). The only science class I enjoyed (still didn’t do well in, but enjoyed) was reproductive biology–finally a class that was taught by a professor who enjoyed teaching! (I took Orgo at UNC after my sophomore year…what a difference it made having a TEACHER, a professor who focused on instruction first!).

    This whole discussion of what science courses are valid has something to do with the way science is taught in this country. As a practitioner of science instruction, I can tell you now what I tell my students, which is that the critical thinking and analytical skills are the most important, followed by a degree of scientific literacy that you gain from having an understanding of the different branches of society. Like it or not, science is jargon-laden. If you don’t study it, you will not understand things that are happening. (Yet, does it make sense that my middle schoolers are having to study the details of meterology because of NCLB test-driven standards when works just fine?) Summed up, you need to learn how to ask good questions and make inferences based on things that are happening — similar skills that you can learn in a history course, just approached in a different way.

    In the end, most of this prattling is inconsequential–an undergraduate education at Yale is about learning to learn, about honing your ability to absorb knowledge and developing a lifelong passion for learning.

    That was really much longer than I intended to write, but teaching has made me very self-reflective about my own experiences in math and science–and I was scarred after my pre-med experience at Yale!

  • y’11

    Anyone here terrible at science but good at math?

  • Wiliam

    This whole discussion is a mute point. Your degree has very little to do with your LONG TERM SUCCESS. Less than 30% of
    the country even holds a B.A.

  • doublemajor

    HA! ” Some of us are still not sure what exactly Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry Thomas Steitz, the recent Nobel Prize winner, studies.”

    understatement of the century. to be sure what exactly professor steitz does, you have to get at least to mb&b biophysics. which would involve taking a bunch of intro science courses. much in the same way that to understand ulysses, it would be highly beneficial to take a bunch of intro english courses.

    in other words, there needs to be a commitment from students so stop moaning about the lack of classes–the initiative has to come from within.

  • RachelN

    I can’t believe Yale is so short-sighted as to lose someone of CJ’s talents simply because the recycling program is being reorganized. I am a 2-time Yale alum and a current sustainability professional, and CJ was an inspiring role model for me. I know he will go on to even greater things!