Following the announcement of the cancellation of the “Perspectives on Science and Engineering” program for all future terms, students and faculty are exploring the best way to fill the remaining gap in science curricula.
“There’s a desire to have something that would be for people who are really interested in science and want to major in it, but obviously it can’t be a repetition of ‘Perspectives,’” said Charles Schmuttenmaer, professor of chemistry and PSE co-director. “I think there’s a place for science departments to offer more science seminar courses for freshmen.”
For most of its run, the 22-year-old program was connected to a summer research fellowship for freshmen. Several years ago, the ties between “Perspectives” and the fellowship were cut, and non-PSE freshmen were able to apply for that fellowship. This administrative change reduced some demand for the program, said Schmuttenmaer, but it ultimately served the research community by allowing more students to apply, leading to more compelling proposals.
But the change also resulted in a loss of interest in PSE — with no research funding incentive, students said, the program was less appealing to them. And with more students coming to Yale with a concentrated research interest than ever before, there was less demand for a broad survey course, said Sandy Chang ’88, professor of laboratory medicine and PSE co-director.
“A lot of the freshmen we take in are already very specialized — they’ve done their chemistry research or their biology research — so they’re already pointy kids,” said Chang.
The best way to serve these “pointy” students — those who have specific, as opposed to general, interests — while keeping with what worked well in the PSE model would be to offer a similar program as two full-credit, semester-long standalone courses, Chang said. One semester would focus on the biological sciences while the other would focus more on the physical sciences. That way, students who have more specialized interests could choose to take one semester and not the other.
Schmuttenmaer said that using this model could lower the dropout rate, since students could be more selective in their interest and still engage in the interdisciplinary mission.
“Some of these pointy kids might be interested in other things too, so taking both semesters might appeal to them,” said Chang. “But some will want to focus on biology or physics, so they might just take one of the classes.”
Chang added that there is significant faculty interest in bringing back a modified “Perspectives” course, particularly from C. Megan Urry, professor of physics and astronomy and a longtime member of the PSE community. She told the News in March that she and other faculty members were “plotting” to advocate for the program in coming years.
Some current PSE students expressed strong interest in the idea.
“This would be so much better — [right now] it’s a half credit, and you only get credit for the first semester if you do both semesters, so it basically forces people to stay in the program,” said Alois Cerbu ’18, currently enrolled in PSE. “They’d have better retention [in the new model] because there are plenty of people who are interested in physics and not biology and vice versa. Yet at the same time, students have the opportunity to explore fields that are perhaps outside their area of expertise.”
Another option would be to expand the range of intensive science freshman seminars available to prospective science majors.
Chang, who teaches the “Topics in Cancer Biology” freshman seminar, said the future of education for freshmen may be in offering accelerated yet accessible seminars that allow students to explore their interests in depth.
“Science is all about interaction. The best way for undergraduates to learn science is in a small seminar format with an experimental basis,” said Chang. “I don’t think you can beat that.”
Chang and Schmuttenmaer both emphasized the degree that small seminars can enhance a learning environment and encourage passionate participation in a way that lectures cannot.
Additionally, said Schmuttenmaer, students enrolled in “Perspectives” or in certain freshman seminars are able to explore some of the most exciting topics in science before they might otherwise be able to do so in the traditional science track.
“That was the awesome thing about ‘Perspectives,’” said Schmuttenmaer. “Students got the opportunity to learn about stem cells, quantum computing, black holes — it was the heart of science. It was the opposite of an intro freshman course.”
Currently, though, only two freshman seminars require advanced science placement to take part in the class — Chang’s cancer course and molecular, cellular and developmental biology professor Robert Bazell’s “Current Issues in Medicine and Public Health.”
Neither of these ideas are likely to come into fruition in the coming academic year, Schmuttenmaer said, adding that he hopes either expanded seminars or a new PSE-style program will be rolled out by fall 2016.
As of 2010, 46.5 percent of freshmen who originally intended to major in the sciences switched to non-science majors by their senior years.