Yale-NUS to experiment with science majors

While Yale students pursuing degrees in science or math can choose among 23 majors, such students at the Yale-NUS College in Singapore will have only three majors to consider: “life sciences,” “physical sciences” or “mathematical and computational sciences.”

Yale-NUS students will be able to select tracks within one of the three majors, which administrators said will encourage a liberal approach to science when the school opens in the fall of 2013. Because of the majors’ broad nature, Yale-NUS Dean of Faculty Charles Bailyn said it is a “legitimate worry” that students will be at a disadvantage when applying to graduate schools, but he added that he expects strong advising at the school to ensure students take courses that appeal to graduate programs.

Haun Saussy GRD ’90, co-chair of the Yale-NUS academics committee and a professor of comparative literature at the University of Chicago, said the three majors will further Yale’s goal to spread the liberal arts in Asia.

“Our strategy was to design a smaller number of science majors, each having a more general focus … but [with] many possibilities of interchange with labs,” Saussy said in a Tuesday email. “This was in keeping with the desire to have the Yale-NUS college be a place where interdisciplinary work would be done from an early stage.”

Because the new college will have a relatively small faculty, with about 100 members in total, the school must also have a small number of departments, Bailyn said. While Yale currently offers 79 majors, the curriculum for Yale-NUS is expected to include just 14.

“This would help us avoid one of the things that has happened at Yale, which is the proliferation of majors,” Bailyn said. “It’s a way of trying to keep flexibility within broad categories.”

He added that it is unlikely that more specialized majors, such as chemistry or biology, would be added to the NUS curriculum in the future.

But for the interdisciplinary science programs to be considered successful, Bailyn said students in the majors must prove viable candidates for graduate school. Megan Urry, chair of the Yale Physics Department, said she thinks science programs may hesitate to accept students with such broad backgrounds.

“In the Physics Department, we care about the preparation, since [students] do have to be ready for the graduate courses,” she said. “For example, I think it’s harder for a chemistry major to get into the physics graduate program, due to foundations required. But that being said, we’re looking for the outstanding students who are highly motivated and very intelligent, and that isn’t dictated by a major.”

Urry added that the interdisciplinary majors would likely prepare students well for postgraduate education outside the sciences, such as in law, business or economics.

Since the majors are unconventional and broad in scope, Bailyn said it is especially crucial to offer extensive academic advising.

“One of the things that we’re looking at closely is to make sure we understand exactly what set of courses a student would have to follow in order to be a good candidate for graduate school in a variety of different fields,” Bailyn said.

Besides concerns about graduate school admissions, Urry said she worried that the broad nature of the majors would require a high proportion of introductory courses, which might overlook “exciting” advanced science by focusing on the “grammar” of several fields.

In developing plans for the new college, administrators have said they envision a “feedback loop” where they can experiment with new policies in Singapore and potentially bring them to New Haven. University President Richard Levin said in a Wednesday email that administrators would consider bringing interdisciplinary science programs to Yale if it proves successful in Singapore and gains support from Yale faculty.

“Anything that works well at Yale-NUS would be worth thinking about trying in New Haven,” Levin said. “But, of course, it would be up to the Yale faculty to decide what to adopt or adapt for use here at home.”

Yale-NUS is expected to have a total of about 1,000 students when it reaches full capacity.

Correction: Jan. 30

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the name of one of Yale-NUS College’s three science majors. It will be “life sciences,” not “natural sciences.”

Comments

  • Quals

    Experimenting with science majors is much more fun than with humanities majors, they usually just lie there.