A new Yale College Council report released last week aimed to improve STEM classes, with a specific focus on “optional enrichment programs” — specifically, small discussion sections or tutoring.
While many students who come to Yale to major in STEM fields bemoan large lecture classes and intimidating problem sets, the eight-page YCC document explores potential avenues for improving STEM students’ lives. The comprehensive report heavily emphasizes providing guidance and assistance for underprepared students in the form of small, optional discussion sections to reinforce topics and tutoring to supplement learning. The report says that, through “research, conversations with administrators” and a student focus group, the writers aimed to “determine the most feasible and effective methods for creating equity for students from all backgrounds interested in STEM.”
“There is a large foundation of knowledge and skills you need coming in to be successful in STEM at Yale,” said YCC President Kahlil Greene ’21. “Obviously, then, this will lead to huge discrepancies in student learning in STEM.”
According to the report, over two-thirds of students in introductory courses without “enrichment programs” believe they would benefit from an additional, supervised opportunity to interact with the material. However, only half of introductory STEM courses are complemented by a section.
A prominent concern was the lack of reinforcement opportunities along the chemistry track. Therefore, the YCC report urges Yale to provide an optional enrichment opportunity for many of the challenging introductory chemistry classes, especially General Chemistry Laboratory I and II.
Sophomore Class Council President Reilly Johnson ’22, who worked on the report, contrasted the chemistry track with its parallel, the introductory biology sequence. In their conversations with the introductory biology course coordinator, the report’s team found that the enrichment program for introductory biology courses is usually oversubscribed, Johnson said.
“To us, that means that it’s possible and very valuable to establish a similar program in the introductory chemistry sequence,” Johnson said.
As far as alternatives to enrichment programs, the YCC explored the possibility of reducing course workloads but concluded that there is no substitution for the effort mandated by weekly problem sets. One anonymous student quoted in the report attributed their struggles in a course to fewer problem sets assigned.
In the report, the YCC concluded that the solution to hard classes lies in increasing resources rather than decreasing the amount of work. Problem sets that test students’ abilities to comprehend material are valuable in many ways, particularly in how students become attuned to potential weaknesses, according to the report.
According to YCC Academics Director Sarah Pitafi ’22, increased assistance is a practical solution due to the large demands of STEM courses.
“Most significantly, we suggest the departmental expansion of teaching resources, whether it be an enrichment program, additional peer tutors or workshops that teach skills necessary for success in the course,” Pitafi said. “We also believe that certain STEM courses have a disproportionately high workload, and are currently exploring ways to ensure that this is appropriately acknowledged on a student’s transcript.”
As the report details, students are often inadequately prepared for the intimidating laboratory classes — half-credit classes designed to give students the opportunity to test theoretical concepts in practice.
Helpful tutorials and experienced advice caused by this initiative “would particularly benefit students who identify as first generation and/or low income students, who face barriers to engaging in Yale’s course offerings due to being underprepared or having a lack of access to information,” according to the report. “Expanding resources is necessary for making STEM fields more equitable and welcoming to all students interested in pursuing studies at Yale.”
According to the Office of Institutional Research, 33.7 percent of the graduating class of 2018 — the last class for which data is available — graduated with a degree in the life sciences, physics and engineering.
Reese Koppel | firstname.lastname@example.org