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.