Despite curricular changes designed to strengthen science course requirements this year, some freshmen and upperclassmen said they still consider certain classes designed for non-science majors “guts.”
Last year, many science departments made changes to the traditional Group IV class offerings to accommodate the new science and quantitative reasoning requirements for freshmen. Unlike upperclassmen, who must take courses in four distributional groups, the Class of 2009 and all subsequent years must fulfill requirements in three general disciplinary areas and take classes that specifically focus on foreign languages, writing and quantitative reasoning skills. These changes, which Yale faculty designed to better define the boundaries between disciplines, have prompted mixed reactions from students.
Astronomy professor Charles Bailyn, who was involved with the 2003 academic review that called for changes to science curriculum, said that the more specific skill requirements for freshmen are designed to help both students and faculty understand each course’s educational objectives.
“We want to judge courses by their content, not their department,” Bailyn said. “There are a lot of science courses that don’t deal with quantitative reasoning and a lot of quantitative reasoning classes that aren’t scientific.”
But Bailyn said these changes have not deterred many students from taking certain science courses because of their reputations as gut classes — less challenging courses taken to fill distributional requirements. These classes tend to attract such large groups of non-science majors struggling to fulfill their Group IV requirements that both students and professors suffer, Bailyn said.
“There are some courses that have come to be perceived as the easiest, so hundreds of students would enroll,” Bailyn said.
Geology and geophysics professors David Bercovici and Mark Brandon, who teach Natural Hazards, revised their syllabus this semester to tailor it to the new science requirements. Before the changes, Bercovici said the class was attracting so many non-science majors — with about 420 students overall — that graduate teaching assistants could not manage grading homework. There is now an increased emphasis on quantitative reasoning and the number of problem sets has doubled, he said, adding that enrollment has dropped down to a more manageable 200.
But even though fewer students are taking the class not all of those enrolled take the class completely seriously, Bercovici said.
“We’re not idiots,” Bercovici said. “We know people are herded in here because they have to fulfill their science requirement.”
Biology of Gender and Sexuality — nicknamed “sexy bio” or “porn in the morn” by students — is another science course that attracts primarily non-science majors.
Biology professor William Summers, who teaches the class, said he specifically designed the syllabus to attract such students.
“I felt we needed a science course that reached out to the rest of the community, to non-pre-med and non-science majors,” Summers said.
Summers is not alone. Many science professors purposefully design classes for non-science majors, Bailyn said.
“We want to emphasize the applications of science that people think are the most interesting and relevant,” Bailyn said. “These classes are created to give students an elementary understanding of the most interesting and exciting concepts that they normally would not get to study unless they took advanced courses.”
Though Physics 110 — known by many as “physics for poets” — is designed for non-science majors, it teaches students the important basics of scientific analysis, said physics professor Bonnie Fleming, who teaches the course.
“It is great that the class attracts non-science majors,” Fleming said. “That is the goal. The class is geared towards teaching non-science majors the highlights of the huge progress we’ve made in physics in the last few centuries.”
But some students said classes for non-science majors are not always intellectually engaging.
A freshman taking Biology of Gender and Sexuality, who asked to remain anonymous, said he considers the class a gut course.
“There is so much common sense involved that the class is unfulfiling,” he said.
Stephen Butler ’06 said before he enrolled in Natural Hazards, other students told him that the class — nicknamed “Natty Haz” — is fun but not always taken seriously.
“[They said] it’s like Toads, like a big party,” said Butler, a former staff reporter for the News.
Despite the increase in problem sets, Butler said he does not feel challenged by the class.
But Bianca Gersten ’07 said lectures on Hurricane Katrina gave her valuable insight into present issues.
“It’s important to know the background of natural disasters relevant to current events,” she said.
In a move to make the classes more interactive this year, professors of Natural Hazards and Physics 110 have asked students to purchase remote controls for answering quiz-style questions during class.