In fall 2016, University President Peter Salovey laid out his key academic priorities for Yale, one of which was promoting excellence in the sciences.
Now, with Yale working on recruiting science faculty and building a state-of-the-art Yale Science Building, undergraduates and faculty members spoke with the News about what more the University should do to promote excellence in STEM undergraduate programs. Among the six STEM majors interviewed, the most commonly cited shortcoming of Yale’s STEM programs was the impersonal and inaccessible nature of the introductory STEM courses.
Unlike many humanities and social science majors, the majority of STEM undergraduate programs require general prerequisites, such as general chemistry, physics and calculus, before students can start taking the bulk of classes specific to their majors. Because these classes are prerequisites for a wide range of different majors, they often take place in large lectures of up to 300 people, which students said were often “uninspiring” and “impersonal.” For example, biomedical engineering requires seven to nine credits of introductory courses before a student can enter the major, and physics requires about three to five prerequisite credits.
The number of prerequisites often depends on the extent of a student’s exposure to material during high school, since the number of classes a student takes can decrease if a student places out of introductory classes like Math 112 and 115 or general chemistry. Not only do students’ high school backgrounds determine how many prerequisites they must take, but, according to Lakshmi Iyengar ’19, they also dictate how well they will do in the introductory courses that they do have to take.
Alyssa Chen ’18 added that it is “extremely unfair and discouraging” for students with no experience in a certain subject to be “thrown” into the same introductory course as students who have taken AP classes and have previous research experience.
“It makes STEM feel really unapproachable to people if they don’t have that kind of background because they feel like they’re not as smart as people in the classroom, and that’s just not true,” Iyengaer said. “Especially in STEM, a lot of it is cumulative and everything is based on what you’ve learned in the past, so if you don’t have the same experience, you’re not going to have the same classroom experience as your peers.”
When Colleen Coffey ’19, a biomedical engineering major, signed up to take an introductary class required for all engineering students, ENAS 130, she went in with no previous knowledge of computer science. But much to her frustration, the class was structured on the assumption that everyone in the class had some baseline knowledge of computing. Other students who had taken computer science courses in high school found the class easy, Coffey said, but she found it so difficult and fast-paced that she did not learn much. The challenging and sometimes intimidating nature of introductory STEM classes can drive students away from pursuing STEM degrees, she said.
To promote excellence in the sciences, Coffey said, Yale needs to rethink how it structures introductory STEM classes to make them more interactive and intimate, tailoring them to first years’ previous level of experience in the subject.
Rose Bender ’19 emphasized that although it may be harder to get as much from larger lectures, it is possible to make big introductory courses more interactive. In Bender’s 40-person differential equations lecture, she said, her professor made an effort to get to know all the students in the class. Bender said the course made her want to get up at 9:00 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday, which is not “something [she] can say about some other classes [she’s] taken.”
“When it’s a large lecture format, it’s easy to get very unexcited about material that you were once excited about if it’s presented in a boring way,” Bender said. “Good teaching makes a class enjoyable and help you learn better, and it’s harder in a big lecture class sometimes.”
In 2012, molecular, cellular and developmental biology professor Mark Mooseker, along with colleagues from the molecular biophysics and biochemistry and ecology and evolutionary biology departments, broke the two-lecture introductory biology sequence into four foundational biology modules across the three departments. Mooseker and his colleagues revamped the modules to improve the quality of interactions among students and to encourage critical thinking and problem solving rather than “passive fact transfer.”
By the end of Yale College’s expansion, Mooseker said, the two cycles of the biology sequence will have 500 students, meaning that 250 people will be enrolled in each class. The only way to decrease class size would be to hire more faculty, which is not something faculty members have control over, Mooseker said.
Ruth Koizim—a member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate, co-chair of the committee on the Yale College expansion and senior lector II in French—told the News that the University must take steps to decrease the size of STEM classes, noting that the growing student body and Yale’s aggressive recruitment of students interested in STEM fields will put further strains on STEM classes.
“What I’ve noticed and has made me very happy is how many faculty members in STEM fields feel exactly the same way as I do as the essential importance of working directly with students, and so it’s an actual issue of frustration for STEM professors who would love to be teaching smaller classes,” Koizim said. “Again, why can these classes not be smaller? It would cost more money obviously. Is that a valid excuse?”
When asked about criticisms regarding large STEM class sizes, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Tamar Gendler told the News that in the 2017–18 academic year, 17 new faculty members joined the biological sciences, physical sciences, and engineering and applied sciences. This represents a net growth of 10 faculty members in these divisions, compared to a net growth of 2.5 faculty members in the Humanities division and 3.5 faculty members in the Social Sciences. Gendler said she expects the 38 new and 39 continuing faculty searches occurring this year to lead to a net growth of 5 to 15 faculty members in the upcoming academic year.
In his module, Mooseker gives out whistles and invites students to anonymously blow them when they don’t understand something he has presented. If more than two or three whistles blow, Mooseker will stop to clarify what he just taught. According to Mooseker, test scores have gone up 20 percent since he implemented the whistle method, which allows him to recognize in real time what students do not understand, despite the large size of the class.
In addition, the biology sequence teaching fellows are expected to engage in weekly teaching training, which consists of 90 minute to two hour sessions each week in which the teaching assistants go over whatever they’re going to teach in discussions section. According to Mooseker, the discussion sections give students the opportunity to “think like scientists” by reading and analyzing figure-by-figure primary literature and data. The course also offers optional enrichment sections for students who feel under-prepared for the course material.
Physics professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies Simon Mochrie said the physics department holds study halls several nights a week to give students in the introductory physics courses the chance to seek assistance while also getting to know their professors, fellow students and TAs. Mochrie said the study halls are an “excellent” way for students to learn physics because it forces them to collaborate with one another.
And molecular biophysics and biochemistry professor and DUS Karla Neugebauer said she encourages faculty members to consider their students’ availability rather than their own schedules when planning office hours since “one-on-one interactions are so important.” She added that it is valuable for professors to explain their own backgrounds and interests, as such introductions humanizes them and make students more likely to reach out for help, especially in big lecture courses.
Adelaide Feibel | firstname.lastname@example.org