At the inauguration of Yale-NUS’ new campus on Oct. 12, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that Yale-NUS cannot be a carbon copy of Yale if it is to succeed as its own institution of higher education.
Differences between Yale and its Southeast Asian counterpart have become especially apparent as Yale-NUS reviews parts of its Common Curriculum, which some students have argued poses a particular challenge to those without strong backgrounds in science. Yale-NUS has a “Common Curriculum,” a set of courses that comprises 38 percent of a Yale-NUS student’s education. Unlike Yale’s distributional requirements, some Common Curriculum categories only include one class, meaning that those individual courses are compulsory for all students. Two of these compulsory classes are the introductory science modules, called “Scientific Inquiry” and “Quantitative Reasoning.” Students must also complete more advanced classes in the categories of Integrated Science and Foundations of Science, although these categories offer more choice in classes. While students have largely expressed support for the introductory modules, the more advanced modules have proven difficult for non-science majors, who say lectures are confusing and grading is inconsistent. Still, faculty and students alike say they support Yale-NUS’ continuing efforts to revise its science offerings.
Additionally, although Yale-NUS only offers three majors in the sciences, administrators say these majors are broader than those offered at Yale, offering students more freedom in their academic pursuits.
“I think that including science in the Common Curriculum is essential for making this a 21st-century education … We want to introduce students to all the fields they need to be effective citizens today, and scientific literacy is absolutely essential,” Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis said. “This does present some challenges in that students have a variety of backgrounds in science when they arrive, but the payoff is worth it.”
ASSESSING THE CURRICULUM
Lewis said that although Yale-NUS does not release course evaluations like Yale does, an internal survey distributed this year showed that students’ responses to the compulsory “Scientific Inquiry” module are largely positive. For the more advanced science classes in Integrated Science and Foundations of Science, Pericles said, the problem lies not in the difficulty level, but in the amount of material covered. The course design started out “too ambitious” in that it aimed to cover too much in one or two semesters, he said, adding that these are broadly successful classes but the school hopes to tweak its approach going forward.
Yale-NUS Dean of Faculty and Yale astronomy professor Charles Bailyn ’81 said the school has made a “decent start” on incorporating science into the Common Curriculum, although it needs to adjust the sequence of courses.
“I think the balance between science, social science and humanities isn’t that different for us than for Yale,” Bailyn said. “The really big difference is that we have a Common Curriculum, whereas Yale has a distribution system. That means that we can design science courses that everyone will take. At Yale, some students seem to choose their science courses based on how easy they appear to be, and that’s not an option that’s available here.”
Bailyn is heading a committee to review the school’s Common Curriculum. The committee generated an internal report earlier this year based on input from Yale-NUS faculty and students. The report was also examined by an external panel, comprised of Yale and NUS faculty not directly linked to the school, earlier this month.
Bailyn said the external panel will compile a report of its own, and when it is available — most likely in mid-November — the school will release main points from both the self-study report and the external report, although some details will remain confidential. The Yale-NUS faculty will most likely vote on changes to the Common Curriculum in January of next year, Bailyn said.
Several Yale-NUS students interviewed acknowledged that some science classes at their university tried to cover too much ground. They agreed that the school needs time to adjust its first iteration of the Common Curriculum.
Matthew Bolden YNUS ’17, an environmental studies major who took three classes in the Integrated Science category, said the courses were well-taught. Although the introductory computer science class in the Integrated Science category covered a good deal of material, he said he did not find it overwhelming or rushed, and the professor was always available for office hours.
But he noted that the science in the Common Curriculum could be generalized to equip everyone with the essential scientific understanding and skills, rather than catering to those who already know they want to pursue scientific research.
“[Science] ought to be part of the Common Curriculum, but that’s far easier said than done. For the most part, tertiary science education is designed to churn out researchers. That’s all fine and dandy, but it turns away a lot of people.” Bolden said. “The Common Curriculum has to grapple with this issue, and I don’t think we’ve quite figured out how to do that yet.”
Al Lim YNUS ’19, who is taking the mandatory “Scientific Inquiry” course this semester, said that the scope of the module is too ambitious as it covers evolution and cosmology in one semester. Still, he said, despite not having prior experience in these areas, he found the subject matter relatively easy to follow.
Yale-NUS’ three science majors are life sciences, physical sciences and mathematical, computational and statistical sciences. The environmental studies major is cross-listed as humanities, sciences and social sciences. The majors are not being evaluated as part of the current curricular review.
Fourteen percent of Yale-NUS’ inaugural class declared a science major, a smaller proportion than at other universities in Singapore. At the National University of Singapore, 21.4 percent of incoming freshmen this year were science majors. At the Nanyang Technological University, 16.3 percent of incoming freshmen planned to study the sciences. Additionally, at both NUS and NTU, a significant portion of students chose to study engineering, although that is not an option at Yale-NUS.
Lewis said that although Yale-NUS offers few science majors, each major is broad enough to cover a variety of topics and fields.
“We look at [the majors] more as a framework for studies rather than as a limiting factor,” he said. “So in physical sciences a student can study physics, astronomy, chemistry, geology … Life Sciences covers what at Yale are several departments, such as MCDB, E&EB and MB&B.” Lewis added that since many of these programs share the same prerequisites, it is possible to cover them in a single major.
Students also have the opportunity to take more advanced courses at NUS in more specialized fields where Yale-NUS might not have a faculty member, Lewis added.
Bailyn agreed that the majors at Yale-NUS are much broader than majors at Yale. For example, Bailyn said, the mathematical, computational and statistical science major — a single science major at Yale-NUS — includes the equivalent of math, computer science and applied math at Yale, as well as parts of statistics.
“So there are many more pathways available to our students than would be the case for any three particular majors at Yale,” Bailyn said. “So the range of our programs is not a problem.”
Yale-NUS was founded in 2011.