If a tour guide told you that Yale’s student-to-faculty ratio in STEM was 3:1, you probably now know that it was a lie. Introductory or advanced, STEM classes are overwhelmingly lectures. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, droves of STEM students trek the dreaded Science Hill half-asleep, only to end up in intimidating, impersonal lecture halls with professors trying to fit as much information as they can into 50 minutes.
We have always been told that this is the only way to learn science. A string of universal and undebatable facts is best conveyed through the medium of lecture. Instead, all the “engaging” learning happens through the homework assignments and self-study. On the other hand, “STEM seminars” are taboo, among both professors and students. Professors argue that they would never be able to teach the entire syllabus if they were “distracted” by student prodding in seminars. Students concede that they would not have much to contribute in STEM discussions. By doing so, both agree to a contrived consensus that there is no pluralism in preordained science.
Why is this bad? The impersonal model of STEM teaching means students must pay a premium to thrive in these courses. To get any questions answered, they must find extra time to go to office hours. To get recommendation letters, they must look elsewhere since the professor might not even know their names. To find people to work with, they must “window shop” and first make friends before making study groups. To do well in the class, they must teach themselves to question little and aggressively search for the right answer demanded by the professor.
Moreover, the entire concept tells the wrong story about STEM as a discipline. Yes, unlike an essay on regime change in political science, problem sets and midterms have prescribed answer keys. However, STEM professors must adapt the seminar model to enrich STEM teaching rather than abandon it altogether. For one, even if there are correct and incorrect answers, those correct answers have emerged from years of debate among scientists. Involving students in that chronological debate and asking them to question theories at each stage will solidify their understanding of what we now know as the most correct answer. The process of a student correcting his own mistake through discussions and debate is perhaps the most educating of all.
Alternatively, a lot of science is still open to debate that even undergraduates can contribute to. In organic chemistry, reaction mechanisms can be debated to the detail of which ion attacks the reaction site first. In biology, the same protein structure can be investigated through different experimental designs. In computer science, there are many correct ways to write a line of code but some are more efficient than others. Students will be unable to contribute to the advancement of science unless they appreciate its pluralism in their classes now.
Even if some material must be drilled down to students as fact, there is a value to the interactivity of seminars. Professors can reinforce material and test understanding quickly by interspersing lecture with quick questions. Even from the professor’s perspective, a seminar setting prompts all students to read before coming to class rather than becoming overly dependent on absorbing long-winded lectures. From the student’s perspective, they will become bolder over time and dispel the myth of the awkward, one-dimensional engineering geek. It is these little pedagogical tricks that produce more successful students.
An easy rebuff to this critique is that lectures often have section with discussions led by teaching assistants. First of all, the essence of a Yale seminar is interaction with and insights from a Yale professor, not a TA. Second, in my experience, most STEM sections don’t play out like seminars. Most students are rightfully focused on getting help on problem sets. Others will elect not to attend because there is no participation grade or compulsory attendance.
A few STEM classes have already embraced the philosophy of a “lecture discussion,” a soft compromise between dictating factual content and having a laissez-faire seminar. In the introductory biology sequence, students read actual biology papers before section and the TAs are trained directly by the professor to lead a seminar. The professor too holds his discussion section to just indulge questions and skepticism. Similarly, in Inorganic Chemistry lab, students are asked to make an original argument in favor of a controversial reaction mechanism in a lab report. In introductory calculus and physics, flipped classrooms and clicker questions have had mixed results but underscore the positive movement towards pseudo-seminars in STEM.
It doesn’t have to be this way — science is worth discussing and debating in intimate settings where we can build relationships with our peers and professors alike. The STEM student body should refuse to settle for mediocre teaching and dismiss the taboo around STEM seminars. And with this, perhaps we can achieve an actual student-to-faculty ratio of 15:1 rather than 100:1 and start putting our faith in tour guides again.
Arvin Anoop is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at email@example.com .