YCC report highlights STEM weaknesses

In a report released Tuesday night, the Yale College Council’s science and engineering subcommittee identified key complaints from the student body about science, technology, mathematics and engineering (STEM) departments on campus.

The YCC’s 21-page report — titled “Report on Undergraduate STEM Experience” — drew from a spring 2013 survey of 542 undergraduates, and focused on problems within STEM fields at Yale. Over 70 percent of students surveyed were STEM majors, while the rest were non-STEM or undecided. The report identified five major suggestions for administrators in STEM fields — increasing grading transparency, making end-of-term evaluations more comprehensive, implementing midterm course evaluations, improving introductory classes and increasing the number of qualified professors.

The report found that students are largely in support of implementing more midterm course evaluations in the STEM departments, with 42 percent of students responding that last semester’s end-of-term course evaluations played a large role in their course decisions this semester. Students also gave largely mediocre ratings to introductory STEM courses — on a one to 10 scale, introductory physics courses received the lowest score of 5.64, and introductory chemistry courses received the highest score of 6.60. The free response section of the report also indicated that bad experiences in introductory courses discouraged many students from majoring in science fields.

According to YCC academics chair David Lawrence ’15 and report co-author Cory Combs ’14, the report aimed to evaluate all students’ perceptions of STEM fields, not just students majoring in STEM fields.

“There’s so much discussion [about] the STEM experience at Yale,” Combs said. “We wanted to get a more data-driven analysis.”

Lawrence and Combs both said the report was assembled to facilitate constructive discussion between students and administrators. The subcommittee spoke with professors and directors of undergraduate studies in the STEM departments, and Combs said that the group is in the process of figuring out which recommendations from the report to prioritize and pursue — though they have not finalized plans to engage with administrators.

Combs said he was impressed by the thoroughness of students’ responses in the free response sections, as many students provided thoughtful answers but seemed to realize the difficulties of resolving large bureaucratic issues. For example, Combs said, many students expressed a desire to see more standardized and transparent grading in their STEM courses, but also acknowledged that this could lead to more “grade obsession.”

One recommendation that emerged entirely out of responses in the free response section was the suggestion to increase the number of qualified STEM professors on campus. According to the report, a large percentage of students commented on teacher quality, with many pointing to uninspiring and uninterested professors as a major problem within STEM education at Yale.

Adrien Gau ’17, who is currently enrolled in introductory classes in the chemistry and geology and geophysics departments, said science courses are taught in an “inherently different” way from other Yale courses. Although she finds the courses interesting, she said, they tend to assume a lot of prior knowledge, which alienates many students from the STEM fields.

Despite having a good experience in STEM courses overall, ecology and evolutionary biology major Alaric D’Souza ’14 said he felt that teaching in many of the departments could be improved.

“I don’t think the teachers’ records are looked at enough when they are considered for positions,” D’Souza said.

D’Souza also said that STEM courses, especially larger lectures or introductory courses, may benefit from breaking free of the typical midterm-and-exam structure. For instance, he said, one course he has taken at Yale replaced the usual end-of-term exam with a final paper that allowed students to engage with scientific research and expand their writing and analytical skills.

The report, edited by Lawrence, was written by 12 members of the YCC science and engineering subcommittee.

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