In response to the Committee on Yale College Education’s recommendations for improving science education for nonmajors, many professors and students said they supported the ideas in theory but remained unsure about their feasibility.
Other schools have had difficulty bridging the divide between science and non-science students through structural changes, and at Yale, faculty and students anticipate similar challenges. Professors said recommendations to develop rigorous courses for non-science majors were appealing but would require more resources and support. Some professors and students also questioned the necessity of creating a Science Teaching Center on central campus, another recommendation in the report.
Since many non-science majors currently opt to fulfill their Group IV requirement with either rigorous introductory courses or science guts, Haley Edwards ’05 supported the review’s suggestion for more attractive challenging science courses, such as classes focused on concepts rather than the applications.
Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology professor Mary Goldsmith said it is important to make courses for non-science majors appealing.
“It is crucially important that students graduate from Yale understanding and conversant about what science is about and with an understanding of human condition and the environment from science,” Goldsmith said.
Finding the teachers
Chemistry professor John Tully, who teaches a chemistry course for non-science majors, said creating a meaningful course for non-science majors was more work than he expected. He said nonmajors have different needs than science majors because their introductory science courses are often the only exposure they will have to the discipline.
“My experience is that it isn’t very helpful for non-scientists to thrust them in an introductory course that is a prerequisite for the major,” Tully said. “I think it’s important that non-science majors have meaty courses, but not the same ones as majors.”
While professors reacted favorably to the recommendations to expand course offerings for non-science majors, they emphasized the need for resources and support in order to improve the offerings for non-science majors.
Physics Chairman Ramamurti Shankar said it is difficult for departments to allocate resources to teaching courses for non-science majors. He said the Physics Department now has only one course for nonmajors and the department is using all of its resources.
Shankar said if the courses were interdepartmental, they would be harder to coordinate, but it would be easier to find faculty resources.
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Chairman Stephen Stearns said his department would like to eventually offer five courses for nonmajors on a rotating basis. But he said this was contingent on the department getting more faculty resources, because at this time it was having trouble maintaining one course for nonmajors.
Stearns said members of his department are willing to teach courses for nonmajors but the department also needs to make sure it has enough courses for its own majors.
Building a center?
The Science Teaching Center, which would provide classroom and tutoring space and faculty resources for developing new courses, garnered mixed reactions from students and professors. Some said the center — one of the costliest proposals in the academic review — would help integrate the sciences with the rest of campus, but other professors and students questioned its necessity.
Stearns said having a science center is less important than having professors who value teaching courses for non-science majors.
Shankar said the Science Teaching Center would need to be attractive to students and faculty members, but had potential to add energy to science teaching.
“I think that a center like that would be tremendous,” Shankar said.
Goldsmith said the danger with the Science Teaching Center on central campus was that is might create a split among faculty between those interested in teaching undergraduates and spending time in the center, and those who stayed on the hill and focused on research. She said the center would only work if it provided students access to all science faculty members.
Haninah Levine ’05 said said he thought the Science Center was unnecessary.
“I think it’s kind of a waste of space on Yale’s central campus,” Levine said. “There’s nothing that’s that far away here … I don’t think there’s a real feeling of isolation.”
“Fuzzies” and “Techies”
While Yale went through a period of inadequately funded sciences, administrators at other universities said they too faced challenges in providing science education for nonmajors.
Stanford Cognizant Dean for the Natural Sciences John Brauman said students joke about the “fuzzies” and “techies” at Stanford.
Stanford had a series of courses designed for nonmajors that Brauman said was successful as an intellectual exercise but ineffective in improving science education for non-science majors. Brauman said the program failed because students wanted to take other courses and this was not an easy way to get through the requirement.
He said the problem of providing rigorous, interesting courses for non-science majors is a pervasive one among many schools, Yale and Stanford included.
“I don’t think there are any silver bullets,” Brauman said. “It’s an area that’s just going to take continuous care and attention from all of us.”
Neta Bahcall, director of the Council on Science and Technology at Princeton, said the council was established to improve and expand science and engineering education at Princeton for non-science majors.
Bahcall said many universities like Princeton and Yale have to address similar issues of how to teach science to non-science majors.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a council or the dean or an assistant dean,” Bahcall said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of structure, as long as you have someone who is thinking about it and coming up with innovative ideas.”