WOLFF: Flirting with STEM improvements

Yale’s undergraduate science program is like a guy who shows up on a first date wearing a bowtie and carrying flowers and who six months later has stopped showering or texting you back. Sure, there’s the honeymoon period of Yale Engineering and Science Weekend, and yes, it’s nice that Yale has a huge particle accelerator, but as everyone in a long-term relationship knows, it’s the day-to-day that counts. When it comes to STEM majors, Yale has a real problem getting them to commit.

Many administrators concerned with this issue miss its nuances. I, a former STEM major and current pre-med, feel I can address the problems from a student’s perspective. The low STEM retention rate is not because the classes are hard and time consuming, since well-taught humanities and social science classes are also both of those things. The primary problem is that there are few incentives for STEM professors to teach well and to mentor students.

As one MCDB professor bluntly put it, “Science professors at Yale are not here to teach. We are here to pull in millions of dollars of research grants.” For every science professor who’s inviting his students to lunch after class, there are ten more that disappear after lecture to make sure that mold isn’t growing on their agar plates. I once asked an organic chemistry professor how to better grasp the material, only to have him plunk down a 1000-page textbook and tell me to read it. I doubt an English professor who, when asked about interpreting Joyce, would chuck Finnegans Wake at you.

Yale claims that our small science departments mean that students get more individual attention, but with a few wonderful exceptions in higher level classes, I have not found that to be the case. Yale has an obligation to convince professors that inspiring the next generation of researchers and scientists is at least as important as carrying out their own work.

If Yale science classes incorporated more reading and writing, for instance, professors and students could have an open dialogue about primary literature. Every principal investigator I’ve ever met has had to spend substantial time doing both, and it’s difficult to come up with new scientific ideas without a base of knowledge to work from.

To improve, STEM classes also need to become more transparent. I once asked a lab professor about reports and was told that a rubric existed, but he did not want to make it available to his students. I have been frustrated many times by my TA’s inability to explain where I went wrong on a problem or what a question was asking. STEM majors’ main interactions are with TAs, many of whom are hired for their awards and honors in their field, not for their ability to lead a discussion. Furthermore, TAs are often unaware of what content will be on exams or what concepts students are struggling with. This ultimately points to a lack of communication between professors and their TAs. Since science faculty can plan decades-long research projects, I am certain that they can organize a semester course that won’t leave students wondering whether they understood the material or if the curve merely worked out in their favor.

Finally, STEM classes need to grant students freedom and responsibility, including the opportunity to design experiments that will keep them involved and engaged. The concept of a “weed-out” class should not exist; professors should be trying to make students love science, not discourage them from it. Every professor needs to teach with the goal that his class be the best one offered at Yale. In my favorite C.P. Snow quote, he compares being able to state the Second Law of Thermodynamics with having read a work of Shakespeare. Imagine if everyone viewed these two goals as equally important in a liberal arts education. Not every student will become a STEM major (nor should they) but the divide between the sciences and the humanities can and should be bridged.

Natalie Wolff is a junior in Morse College. Contact her at natalie.wolff@yale.edu .

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