UP CLOSE | Playing catch-up: Building a science culture

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Photo by Jennifer Cheung.

Last winter, Brandon Sim was a high school senior waiting to hear back from the schools he hoped one day to attend. By the time February rolled around, he had received two pieces of good news from one of these schools: Yale. First he received a “likely letter” indicating his probable admission, and then an invitation to attend Yale Engineering and Science Weekend, also known as YES-W.

YES-W, an event dreamed up by the Yale admissions office and launched for the first time last February, brought 108 of the top science and engineering applicants in Yale’s regular decision pool to New Haven to demonstrate Yale’s offerings in these areas. Though Sim said he initially thought of Yale as a school only focused on politics and government, after he had spent the weekend touring the University’s labs, meeting professors and learning about undergraduates’ research persuaded him tht Yale was, in fact, a place that boasts strong science programs. But, in the end, Sim chose Harvard over Yale.

“It felt like what Yale was showing us wasn’t what the norm is,” he explained. “I felt like Yale was making an especially large effort to really try to convince students that we’re really good at science and engineering while other schools were self-assured and didn’t need to go out of their way to prove it.”

Sim’s decision to head to Cambridge was an especially disappointing one for the University, as Yale has been undertaking a decade-long campaign to enhance its science and engineering programs, evidenced most clearly by the $1 billion that Yale has invested in science, engineering and medical research facilities since 2001. Since then, Yale’s admissions office has been working to “get the word out” about the University’s revamped facilities and programs. Though admissions officers said these initiatives have garnered impressive success, stories like Sim’s, along with the testimonies of college counselors, students at Yale and other top Universities, suggest that Yale’s science program is not yet receiving the recognition it may deserve.

When it comes to the sciences, Yale’s strength in other disciplines is seen by some as a weakness.

Yale is traditionally known for its humanities and social sciences, and these areas of study make up over 80 percent of the College — a statistic that University President Richard Levin said he hopes will change. Though Yale has made strides in its ability to attract science students to its applicant pool and matriculate them in its freshman class, the percentage of students graduating with diplomas in science, engineering, technology and math remains significantly lower than at Yale’s peer institutions. This is due partly to Yale’s perennial problem with retention: students frequently defect from the sciences.

“We recognize that it is in part a consequence of the superior quality of education we offer in humanities and social sciences,” Levin said. “We would very much like to see a higher degree of persistence [in the sciences]. The net result of ending up with slightly less than 20 percent of our students majoring in science puts us in the low end of the spectrum among our peers.”

A CLEAR MINORITY

Despite the financial resources and energy Yale is pouring into its science departments, an average of only 19.9 percent of each graduating class has earned degrees in the natural sciences, math, computer science or engineering over the past five years — a significantly smaller percentage than Harvard’s 28.5 percent, Princeton’s 33 percent and Stanford’s 36 percent, according to data from each school’s Office of Institutional Research.

Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel said Yale’s retention rate is “relatively similar” to those of its peer universities. The difference lies in how many students start out in a STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — major, he said: about 30 percent of Yalies, compared to over 50 percent of the students who enter Harvard every year, and over 60 percent at Stanford.

“This is a known factor in college admissions in general, that the STEM disciplines are challenging, and like every other student at Yale, students who intend these majors go through a lot of changes in perspective and outlook during their time in college, especially at a place like this,” he said.

But Levin said Yale’s goal moving forward is to reduce attrition from STEM majors more than to increase the number of math and science admits.

The small number of these students translates to individual attention from professors, which both students and professors called a hallmark of Yale’s science offerings. Jeremiah Quinlan ’03, deputy dean of admissions and the “point person” for Yale’s recent work in admissions recruiting, said the student-faculty ratio is three students to one professor across the sciences, and one to one in the SEAS.

None of the Yale science students interviewed said they thought Yale’s science community was too small, but Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) Kyle Vanderlick said her school’s size may not be working to its advantage. She said the SEAS has plans to grow, with hopes to hire around 20 new faculty members, bringing the total up to around 70, and to increase the number of students graduating with engineering degrees from 60 or 70 to about 100 per year.

“I like to say that right now we’re at sub-critical mass … [adding new faculty and students will have] no effect on intimacy of relationships we’re able to have, but will actually make it better,” Vanderlick said. “Our classes will have more camaraderie because there will be more students to bounce ideas off of, while maintaining the small feeling we have now. We’re so sub-critical in numbers of students and faculty, that this will move us right into the sweet spot.”

The small size of Yale’s STEM programs is not helping to spread the word about the revamped offerings for math and science students. Though college counselors and students from Yale and its competitors said Yale has gained ground in recent years, many added that, when push comes to shove, the University is not perceived to be on par with other top schools like Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Beth Slattery, director of college counseling at Harvard-Westlake School in the Los Angeles area, said she would be more likely to suggest Yale to a strong humanities student than one who loves science.

“When I think of places to recommend to my very strong science and math students, [Yale] isn’t the first place that comes to mind,” she said. Though she said she would have “no reservations” recommending Yale to any student, she named MIT and Caltech first, then Stanford, as her first thoughts for science and math students. “This is probably true of a lot of college counselors,” she added.

A HUMANITIES CULTURE

Since the vast majority of Yale students’ passions lie in the humanities or social sciences, some prospective science majors say they had trouble seeing their place in the University’s academic landscape.

Hayden Metsky, who chose MIT over Yale three years ago, said the size of Yale’s science-oriented student body might have been a concern had he chosen Yale. In addition to the strength of academic programs, Metsky said his main criterion for choosing among the five schools to which he was admitted — Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and MIT — was the strength of the “culture of curiosity” about science and technology among students. He said he saw less of this quality at Yale than some of his other options, and in the end found himself deciding between Harvard and MIT.

“At dinner people talk about what they’re interested in, what they’re studying and what they’re doing,” he said. “I want to be able to talk to other people who I can relate to, especially in terms of what they’re doing. This doesn’t mean I don’t want to talk to people majoring in humanities, [but] it might feel very different if I were in the minority.”

Despite the difficulties that the humanities culture presents for the University, the admissions office has still been increasingly successful in attracting science students to Yale. According to data from the admissions office, the number of STEM applicants has grown by 53 percent in the past five years, while the rest of the applicant pool — all students not intending to major in one of these areas — has grown by 34 percent in the same time period. Additionally, the portion of the incoming freshman made up of students who intend to major in a STEM major has increased by six percent over the past five years — growing from 33 percent to 39 percent, according to admissions office statistics.

But as the pool of incoming science students grows, the strength of Yale’s humanities and social science programs continues to draw students away from STEM majors.

Vanderlick expressed optimism that Yale’s STEM programs can compete more strongly with other tracks through the University if they can show students the practical uses and intellectual excitement of pursuing math, science and engineering at a high level. But, she said, it may always be hard to predict whether a student will stick with a STEM track, and therefore difficult to find incentives to keep them there.

“We don’t know all the factors at play here as to why we admit these students who say they’re interested and then change their minds,” she said. “We have stiff competition — outstanding humanities and social sciences. [Students] take their first course in writing or philosophy and it’s eye-opening for them, they start to think maybe this is my calling.”

Sophie Janaskie ’15 is one potential convert. Janaskie attended the Research Science Institute, a summer program held at MIT where 80 of the most accomplished science, math, engineering and technology students in the world further their studies. Though she examined science at Yale thoroughly before making her college decision, Janaskie says she is not sure she will major in a hard science, adding that she is planning to look into social science programs such as global health.

Some students admitted to Yale last year said they found the rate of retention in the sciences worrying, and enough to dissuade them from choosing Yale. One freshman at Harvard said she was concerned that she might be distracted from the sciences if she went to Yale. She said all of her friends at Yale either entered intending to study humanities, or switched from a science track to one in the humanities.

But chemistry major Peter Wilcyznski ’12 said students’ tendency to switch out of science tracks is not necessarily a negative one.

“It’s different recruiting a science person and keeping them in the sciences,” he said. “That’s not necessarily the point of Yale. The point is to expand, to grow, to realize what you like. The fact that [science classes are] far away, a lot of work, and the fact that they do in some ways limit other things that you do causes more people to defect here than maybe somewhere else. Which is fine, everyone ends up being fine.”

THE CHANGING FACE OF YALE SCIENCE

Yale’s science departments may be small relative to those of the humanities and social sciences, but their facilities and faculties have experienced enormous growth in recent years.

“I think the perception [of Yale’s strength in science and engineering] is lagging behind the reality,” Brenzel said. “To some extent it’s our job [in admissions] to make people understand what’s here. Once they see what’s here, we’re becoming increasingly successful.”

Since 2001, the University has purchased the new West Campus — which includes more than 500,000 square feet of research laboratories — and constructed new buildings on central campus including Kroon Hall, the Malone Engineering Center, the Class of 1954 Environmental Science Center and the Class of 1954 Chemistry Research Building. The sciences were also one of four central themes of Yale Tomorrow, the largest fundraising campaign in the University’s history that raised $3.881 billion over the course of five years, ending in July.

Most recently, SEAS has experienced major changes. Since the founding of the interdisciplinary school in 2008, the faculty have created its four departments and agreed on common research priorities. Last May, the University announced a $50 million donation to SEAS from John Malone ’63, which will fund 10 new professorships at the school.

Meanwhile, the admissions office is working to bring science students to Yale. Its efforts include a tour of campus especially for students interested in science, a separate admissions viewbook especially displaying Yale’s science and engineering offerings, and programs through which Yale students and professors travel to high schools and forums across the country to promote the University’s science and engineering programs.

Most recently, the admissions office piloted YES-W this past winter. It also added a required essay to Yale’s application for students who stated their intent to major in engineering.

Quinlan said the University’s efforts to enhance the sciences and the admissions office’s initiatives to spread the word have had an effect.

“Five years ago we thought we weren’t seeing the top [science and engineering] students in our pool,” Quinlan said. “Students hadn’t learned about the incredible growth of Yale’s science, engineering and medicine programs … We feel that’s changed completely.”

AN OPEN ENVIRONMENT

And there may be a way for Yale’s surging science departments to mesh with, and gain from, their dominant counterparts.

Ramamurti Shankar, a professor of physics and chair of the physics department who participates in the admissions office’s science and engineering forums, said he thinks Yale is a uniquely diverse intellectual environment and well-suited to the exploration of multiple interests. Shankar said he likes to tell students that, for people who are serious about science and something else as well, or more than one field in science, Yale is the best option.

“I may not be able to say Yale has the best science reputation,” he said. “But for people with broad interests, you cannot beat Yale … [here] you don’t have to give up everything to pursue a science, you can do more than one thing. Yale welcomes that and encourages that.”

He added that Yale stands out because of the faculty’s willingness to work with undergraduates — a strength facilitated by the science departments’ small size. Though students who are choosing a college based on the number of Nobel laureates in its departments may overlook Yale, those seeking faculty mentorship will find it in New Haven, he said.

“It’s hard to beat a place like MIT … we can’t compete with some such places. They have a big artillery of people they’ve been collecting for years,” Shankar said. “[But here] the support of the faculty exceeds everywhere else. You can learn science from any number of people. What matters is how much interest they take in your life. From this point of view, Yale is a very good choice.”

In high school, Henry Zheng ’13 said he noticed that Harvard and MIT professors appeared more often in highly-regarded scientific journals than those from Yale. But, faced with a choice between MIT and Yale, Zheng decided to come to New Haven because the students he observed at MIT were “disturbingly focused, like they had tunnel vision.”

Although Zheng has done research at MIT during his time at Yale because he could not find a lab in New Haven that exactly fit his qualifications, he said Yale has given him things he feared other schools would not: a varied experience and the freedom to explore.

Many other Elis majoring in the sciences said that initially they either had not heard about Yale’s prowess in science and engineering or they had heard it was not up to par with its competition, but Yale won them over once they learned more about it.

Sara de la Rosa ’13 said some of her high school friends were surprised to hear she was considering Yale because they knew she had gotten into MIT and Stanford, and they were aware that she was planning to major in engineering.

“No one knows about Yale in the sciences, so people thought, ‘obviously you should go to MIT,’” she said. But, she added, she got a firsthand view of Yale’s engineering program as well as the University at large that convinced her to become a bulldog.

While students at Yale will always have the option of exploring the social sciences and humanities, the STEM departments are continuing to grow and attract more students.

Vanderlick said she believes Yale’s engineering program, for one, is headed for broader recognition, its reputation about to “ignite like a fire.”

“We’ve had a best kept secret here … that [Yale offers] a fantastic engineering education embedded fully and seamlessly in the liberal arts environment,” she said. “We really expect this to go viral.”

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