After a 22-year run, Perspectives on Science and Engineering is ending.
With the retirement of its longtime leader, William Segraves, the former associate dean for science education at Yale College, the program will be phased out by the end of this academic year, Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway said in an email. The selective freshman program, often seen as the scientific counterpart to Directed Studies, has been on shaky ground ever since Segraves retired on Jan. 1. A recent page update on the Yale College website stating that “the Perspectives on Science and Engineering program is no longer being offered” fueled speculation.
The program is a one-credit, year-long freshman class that meets on Fridays to introduce freshmen to a wide range of disciplines in STEM. Students write a final research paper and typically conduct research over the summer with professors. The program makes it easier for students to receive funding and find research opportunities, said PSE co-director Sandy Chang ’88.
For nearly two decades, the program was led by Segraves, who managed logistical matters like grading, selecting students and managing teaching fellows. With Segraves at the helm, PSE professors could focus more on teaching while maintaining their heavy involvement in research, Chang said. With Segraves gone, he added, there is nobody clear to fill the void.
“Without a dedicated person like him, I don’t see how it could survive,” said Chang, a professor at the Yale School of Medicine. “I love PSE; I’d love to see it continue, but not with me.”
CHALLENGES FOR THE PROGRAM
PSE is meant to provide a broad survey of different areas of research. The content is presented by professors and researchers at the tops of their respective fields. While the broad approach can be useful to students who want to go into a STEM field but are unsure of what they want to study, the scope can be frustrating for those who already know their intended major and specialty within their intended discipline, Chang said.
“I’ve seen this growing specialization of Yale students coming in pre-formed,” he said. “They already know that they want to do — say, physics research, so PSE may not be so appealing any longer.”
Holloway made a similar point in his email to the News, noting that while students generally came to Yale with little scientific experience when the program first started in 1993, students today often have a much deeper level of scientific experience and may not need the program’s broad approach.
Chang speculated that the Admissions Office may be selecting students more interested in pursuing a narrow line of study and research. As a result, he said, PSE membership has declined. He estimated that the year began with 65 PSE students, and second semester attrition brought it down to 45. In contrast, in 2007, the News reported that the program was expanding by 25 percent that year to admit 75 students.
The program was also weakened by the removal of guaranteed funding for students to conduct summer research, said Doris Wang ’04, who now works in the Department of Neurological Surgery in the University of California, San Francisco. She said that her career interests were strongly impacted by her experiences with the program.
PSE used to automatically allocate summer funding to all its students, but in recent years, the program has required students to apply for funding alongside all the other students interested in research.
Chang said that students almost always received funding for the program but that the additional requirement to apply for funding took away one of the program’s perks, leading some students to question its value.
“The research component is one of PSE’s strengths, or rather it used to be until guaranteed funding was abolished,” said Carl Mansson ’18. “PSE still gives some advice in the process of applying for funding, which is good if you, for some incredible reason, can’t read the instructions on the website.”
Students’ opinions of the program were mixed, with most of them falling on extremes of the spectrum. Wang and Aaron Ring ’08 GRD ’08 both said the program changed the course of their careers, and lauded it for helping students become passionate about research and intellectual discovery. Anamika Veeramani ’18 emphasized the degree to which PSE teaches communication skills, a vital asset in scientific research.
Ring likened PSE to a residential college in its culture of excited research involvement.
But Mansson and Joseph Balsells ’18 said PSE lectures were often cursory at best, given the time constraints of a single lecture. Mansson said a Wikipedia article could deliver just as much information as the lectures and readings, and Balsells noted that, without the course, students would likely read equivalent material independently and on their own terms.
“The problem with PSE is that very few people actually enjoy it,” said a prospective math major who wished to remain anonymous because he has the class today.
LACK OF ADMINISTRATIVE CLARITY
The program has been in flux since Segraves’s departure, but it was uncertain whether it would end or someone else would take over the helm.
An announcement stating the program’s discontinuation appeared on the Yale College Class of 2018 website, but it was not available anywhere else. When contacted by the News about the possibility of PSE’s cancellation, Chang and PSE co-director Charles Schmuttenmaer were initially unsure of whether the program would continue in the fall. Carl Hashimoto, dean of science education at Yale College, declined to comment, saying that he is waiting on an announcement from Holloway, which would be “imminent.” Deputy Provost for Science and Technology Steve Girvin said he was not aware of any intended changes to the program.
While Chang and Schmuttenmaer had suspicions that the program might be discontinued, they expressed uncertainty about this development hours before Holloway confirmed PSE’s cancellation.
“Nobody ever told me as a co-director, nor … Professor Schmuttenmaer,” said Chang.
Schmuttenmaer similarly said that while he had heard “rumblings” of the possibility that PSE might not be continued, there were, to his knowledge, no official conversations on the program among the PSE faculty. But the co-directors lacked the time necessary to lead the program, and there were no proposals for any external leader to fill Segraves’ shoes, he added.
“It’s kind of sad to me that PSE is just being left fizzling out — what an unceremonious end to such a great course,” Chang said. “I think a lot of kids enjoyed it, so I don’t know why it’s been left to die. It’s kind of sad for me.”
On the afternoon of Feb. 12, Chang had expressed suspicion that the program would be discontinued. On that date, he sent an email to three PSE students in which he wrote, “[regarding] PSE, you have the honor of participating in the last PSE class at Yale. It will most likely not be offered next year.”
He said part of his doubts stemmed from not being asked to submit a syllabus for the fall term. Professors are usually expected to turn in their syllabi six months in advance — if the program were going to be continued, he would have been asked for the syllabus about a month ago.
When contacted on Wednesday and Thursday, PSE professors Jaehong Kim, Maureen Long, Debra Fischer and Anjelica Gonzalez were unaware of the program ending.
“It would have been nice to let us know,” said Chang only six hours before Holloway confirmed the program would be discontinued. “It makes me wonder if Yale hasn’t made up its mind yet — maybe Yale will hire somebody else, and I can continue on as a faculty discussant. I hope that will happen.”
FORGING AHEAD IN RECRUITMENT AND PROGRAMMING
PSE is a high-profile recruiting tool for accepted students, Chang said. The program is mentioned in both on-campus and online tours of Yale’s science facilities, and preadmission to the program serves to attract students to Yale’s research environment.
During Bulldog Days, Chang often mentions PSE to prospective students to showcase Yale’s research environment, he said. The program has attracted students who might otherwise consider schools known more singularly for their sciences, he added.
Ring, who is currently pursuing an M.D. and a Ph.D. at Stanford, said PSE was the cornerstone of a research environment that differentiated Yale from many of his colleagues’ alma maters.
“Undergraduates are not involved in research elsewhere like they are at Yale,” he said. “Yale may be the strongest place for an undergraduate doing science, particularly because we have such a strong research exposure.”
To continue this culture after the end of PSE, Chang suggested that students get more involved in freshman seminars in science where they can find similar encouragement to engage in research. The difference, though, is the lack of focus specifically on research and the narrower focus of each class, he said. Holloway corroborated this limitation.
“Departments have greatly expanded their curricula and created freshman seminars that fulfill the needs of students with a focused science interest,” Holloway said.
Chang said he did not know if there would be any replacement recruiting tool for the sciences, “badge of prestige” or streamlined manner of finding research.
“Students will just have to try a little harder,” he said.