If I could do anything at Yale over again, I sometimes think I should have majored in science.
Mind you, I probably never would have gone through with it. I’ve been very happy with my own major, ethics, politics and economics, and am definitely a social scientist at heart. Yet science majors seeking both breadth and depth in their education can take upper-level history seminars or advanced writing courses.
As for me? I don’t have the prerequisites to take interesting classes on immunology or quantum physics. My choices are large — and often poorly taught — introductory science lectures or gut sciences for non-science majors.
To my mind, this leaves me –and many other students at Yale — with a huge hole in our education. Most people acknowledge that students at Yale will eventually forget half of the material they learn in their classes. What we as students retain is our critical thinking skills; by the time we graduate, almost all students are intelligent writers and thoughtful debaters. If the distributional requirements really exist for a reason, if, as the Blue Book says, we should all be “exposed to different ideas and various ways of thinking,” Yale has failed in one major sense. Most of us will graduate without really knowing what it means to “think like a scientist.”
I know that the Committee on Yale College Education is very concerned with improving science education for non-science majors, and I hope that it indeed has the ability to remedy this situation. As someone who has been frustrated with this problem for four years, I offer the committee the following four suggestions for setting the boundaries of reform:
First, don’t create more classes specifically for non-science majors. Such classes epitomize the very reasons that professors complain about the Credit/D/Fail option; the quality of the classes will inevitably be low, since students taking such classes are rarely excited about the material. Moreover, while students who take “gut sciences” may learn important information about astronomy or biology, they will not really learn how to think like a scientist. If we merely want to learn facts about science, we can all read Stephen Hawking or Richard Dawkins. Classes at Yale should teach us new and deeper ways of reasoning.
Second, don’t adopt a “quantitative analysis requirement,” as the April 12 Yale Herald cover story “Yale College education under scrutiny” suggests you might. That could, in effect, segregate science and non-science students. Such a requirement might, depending on the way it is designed, implicitly designate more classes for non-science majors. Non-science students will never find science exciting unless they are taking classes with people who do.
Third, focus on improving introductory science classes. The lowest level introductory courses currently presume very little background knowledge; there is no reason a non-science major shouldn’t be able to take them. If class size was smaller — perhaps taught in sections, like Economics 110 — and professors were more engaged with their students, such courses could be both useful and fascinating. And who knows? If I had been more inspired by introductory chemistry, I might have been a chemistry major.
Fourth, offer “advanced introductory” science classes Credit/D/Fail. Chemistry 113, 114 and 118 are all first-year inorganic chemistry classes, but they vary in scope and difficulty. If Chemistry 118 were offered Credit/D/Fail, perhaps more people who do not need chemistry for medical school or their major would be encouraged to challenge themselves. Don’t offer lower-level science classes Credit/D/Fail; such classes could, in time, become guts for students looking to satisfy their science requirements in the easiest way possible.
My suggestions may not make every non-scientist happy; certainly, they would require many of us to work harder in our science classes than we currently do. Nor are my suggestions incredibly novel or radical; they would not “solve the problem” of science education for non-science majors. Nonetheless, I hope adopting such ideas could be a step in the right direction, leading to “Group IV requirements” that actually broaden how students view the world. This, after all, is one of the major aims of distributional requirements — and, one might say, of a college education.
Shayna Strom is a senior in Davenport College.