Steiner: Don’t recruit, retool

The News reported Thursday on the admissions office’s plan for a new admitted students weekend — Yale Engineering and Sciences Weekend (YES-W) — for those prospective Yalies interested in science and engineering. While the administration correctly recognizes that it needs to increase the proportion of its students majoring in sciences and engineering in order to remain among the world’s great research universities, it fundamentally misunderstands why students tend not to major in the sciences at Yale.

The administration thinks the problem is that it doesn’t do enough to recruit students interested in science and engineering. As an ex-science major, I can confidently say that this is far from the case. As a prospective and then admitted student planning to major in the physical sciences, I was bombarded with information about Yale’s science programs and encouraged to study science. From special science and engineering tours for prospective students and information sessions for admitted students, Yale is already quite good at drawing students interested in science. Where it fails is in keeping students interested in science after they matriculate.

About half of all prospective science and engineering majors at Yale end up majoring in something else. Given that roughly 20 percent of undergraduates ultimately major in the sciences, this means well over a third of all Yalies are leaning toward a major in the sciences at the beginning of freshman year. It is the attrition rate, not lack of interest among current students, that drives the number of science majors down. While some prospective science students find their passions elsewhere — a change of heart which is by no means specific to students in the sciences — a significant number, myself included, have left because we were fed up with the Yale science program.

The real problem is that the undergraduate science and engineering program, while populated with brilliant professors and eager students, is largely set up to dissuade students from majoring in those areas. While other disciplines offer a wide variety of fascinating electives to increase student interest, the science curriculum is largely a sterile, pre-professional set of classes that is predetermined for the would-be major. Interesting electives in the sciences tend to be gut classes geared toward non-science majors fulfilling distributional requirements. Perspectives in Science and Engineering, the class intended to inspire freshman science students, is so legendarily boring that it could drive even the most ardent aspiring physicist into the arms of the English Department.

In the humanities and social sciences, Yalies can expect to find engaging lecturers and ample support from both their teaching assistants and professors. Science students are not so fortunate. Introductory classes, already boring, are generally staffed with professors who are brilliant but ineffective at teaching, and teaching assistants who are either indifferent or outright contemptuous towards their students. In a physics class last year, there weren’t even any sections aside from weekly homework sessions where TAs would provide useless suggestions and be incredulous that students could not do the homework problems. In another class, the professor didn’t even hold office hours. Such a lack of support would be inconceivable in other disciplines at Yale.

Then there is Science Hill. Having classes so far away literally separates science students from the rest of the Yale community. Infrequent shuttles up the hill and limited lunch options only exacerbate this. While certain classes, such as labs, have to be held on Science Hill, some lecture classes could be held closer to the rest of campus. At the very least, having a shuttle running directly from Cross Campus to Science Hill would mean more frequent transportation up the hill and an easier commute for science students.

To put it bluntly, those suggestions — and the solutions to many of Yale’s other science woes — aren’t rocket science. Yale needs to refocus its efforts away from recruiting science students and toward retooling how it does science, so that more students leave Yale with the same passion for science they had when they arrived. Most importantly, there need to be more electives that make science more interesting for would-be majors and far more support from TAs and professors to help science majors through what can be incredibly challenging classes. If Yale focused as much attention on keeping its undergraduates interested in science as it did in selling its science program to prospective students through programs like YES-W, there would be a lot more science majors here.

Alex Steiner is a sophomore in Berkeley College.