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.


  • Undergrad

    This is fundamentally wrong. The fact that you weren’t interested in the classes doesn’t mean that they aren’t interesting in general. If there’s ever an issue of professors not being interested in teaching, this only applies, in rare cases, at the introductory/prerequisite level, and even there, there are some classes that are exceptionally well-taught, such as Freshman Organic Chemistry. (In general, I think the harder intro courses are better taught.) The very nature of science programs, both here and elsewhere, requires students to take certain prerequisites before getting to the interesting upper-level courses, which is when you can take things like Tissue Engineering or Cloud Physics and Dynamics. So if you just took intro physics and Perspectives and lost heart (or, more likely, got scared away because you “couldn’t do the problems”), then you didn’t really understand what it’s like to be a science major at Yale.

  • Jaymin

    You need to understand a fundamental difference between the sciences and humanities. The sciences are inherently fact-based. You need to learn the basics of biology, physics, and chemistry for you to synthesize a hypothesis on any remotely advanced question in biology. You need a comprehensive quantitative understanding of math and physics before you can place yourself in front of a particle accelerator. The hard sciences simply aren’t a field where you can wander into a fun elective without any foundational knowledge and expect to come out with a good understanding. This isn’t a problem with teaching. It’s a problem of what science inherently is.

  • River Tam

    > The hard sciences simply aren’t a field where you can wander into a fun elective without any foundational knowledge and expect to come out with a good understanding


  • penny_lane

    If science as a field relies so much on the basics, wouldn’t you want the introductory/prerequisite ones to be well taught? Departments like English put a lot of effort into the design of their introductory/prerequisite courses because interest in those fields is flagging and they want to draw people in. I suspect Steiner is right to suggest that such courses in the sciences are mainly designed to weed out those who aren’t really serious about the field (or medicine, as the case may be), and it works a little too well.

  • silliwin01

    Beautiful article.

  • Madas

    Thank you, Alex Steiner. The belief that somehow the only way to teach “the basics” is through rote memorization and repetition on problem sets reminds one of a Latin class repeating declensions in the late 19th century. Just because one needs to learn something, doesn’t mean that it has to be God-awfully boring.

    The problem with Yale (and many of her community members, if the comment boards are any indication) is that somehow they feel this shouldn’t apply to science. If a humanities class were nothing but memorizing dates and names, who would bother? But it isn’t. There is analysis; there is creative thinking; there is a feeling of accomplishment and independence. Certainly there is background material that must be learned, but it rarely becomes of the focus of a class. Science and Engineering shouldn’t be any different. Sure, learn the equations, practice them, and make sure you know “the basics.” But then, for the love of God, use the brain you were given to do something with that knowledge. Any textbook can give me Maxwell’s equation. The fact that you know it makes you slightly more useful than a piece of paper. What new things can you do with it? That’s not in a book. S/E rarely issues that challenge, and that’s why so many of us left or modified our original plans.

    As for Perspectives… so true. I was upset I wasted my Freshman elective on it. It’s horribly boring, but no one told me that before I arrived. If I could do it again, I’d do DS as I never had the opportunity to read the great books when my time was taken up with science prereqs later.

    Undegrad, you must be a professor. You’re going out of your way to protest all malcontents must be morons, and my experience has been that professors often exhibit that kind of science chauvinism: whatever the problem with my class, it’s the student’s fault. You and the others keeping Yale’s curriculum in the 19th century can hurl insults at our backs as much as you want, but the inescapable fact is that 50% of your potential students and collaborators are leaving and couldn’t care less.

  • jmanjohns

    Beautifully written, thank you.

  • CrazyBus

    It’s kinda hilarious how Madas believes he speaks for all science undergrads, and also how he thinks that anyone who has a different experience from him must be a professor or part of the “system” (matrix?)

    It’s kinda presumptuous to only believe your own opinions are valid, yeah? Also, Madas, going by your argument, you must be just a hater, because you’re going out of your way to harass and insult Yale science.

    I understand if you have had a bad experience. But others have had good ones and it’s unfair of you to dismiss their experience so lightly. Yes there are problems, but there are also incredible parts too.

    Don’t be so narrow minded.