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A Surge in the Study of Science
Traditionally known as a powerhouse for the humanities, Yale College is getting behind the sciences with a new enthusiasm.

In popular mythology, the typical Yale undergraduate is probably majoring in history, English, or political science, and no doubt headed for a career in law, business, government, or the arts. But just as the quintessential Yale student is no longer necessarily male, neither is the normal course of study necessarily humanistic. Indeed, today’s graduate is almost as likely to carry a degree in biology or chemistry as in literature or languages.

Since 1988, increasing numbers of Yale undergraduates have been signing up for the so-called Group IV subjects: biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, engineering, computer science, statistics, mathematics, forestry and environmental studies, geology and geophysics, and molecular biophysics and biochemistry (MB&B).

A quick look at statistics compiled by Yale’s Office of Institutional Research reveals that almost one quarter of the members of the Class of 1993 graduated with a Group IV major, continuing a steady rise in recent years (22.6 percent for the Class of 1992, 18 percent for the Class of 1991, 16.9 percent for the Class of 1990, and 15.7 percent for the Class of 1989; the percentage rose briefly in the early 1980s, but averaged close to 10 percent earlier). More juniors and seniors have been majoring in the biological sciences than in English since 1989, and if current trends continue, they may surpass the number of history majors within the next year or so. In terms of overall appeal, Group IV courses attracted more undergraduates, as measured by course registrations, than did the offerings of either Group I (Lang­uage and Literature), Group II (Humanities), or Group III (Social Science). “The sciences have been capturing ‘market share’ in astonishing ways,” says Richard Brodhead, dean of the College, and himself a distinguished scholar of English and American literature.

To be sure, Yale is not about to jettison its traditional strengths in the humanities and metamorphose into Technology U. On the contrary. What the statistics seem to indicate is that more high school students are becoming aware of what has long been a strong scientific program at Yale, but one that was often overshadowed by the more visible strengths in the humanities. As science has emerged in the national consciousness as a critical component of the nation’s future (and a more reliable source of jobs than many of the humanistic pursuits), student attention has followed accordingly.

It may come as a surprise to many that science and mathematics were an important part of Yale’s offerings even in its earliest days—and certainly since the appointment of geologist Benjamin Silliman and mathematician Jeremiah Day to the faculty at the beginning of the 19th century. But changing times have clearly amplified that importance. “A citizenry living in an increasingly technology-dominated world and yet not well versed in science is easy prey for charlatans,” says Sabatino Sofia, chairman of the astronomy department.

Yale’s most significant effort at expanding its scientific offerings for undergraduates began in 1985 when Sidney Altman, subsequently a Nobel laureate in biology, became dean of the College. “A course-of-study committee determined that nearly a third of our graduates never took a science course at Yale,” says Altman. Although two Group IV courses were required for graduation, many students used advanced placement credits from high school to fulfill the requirement, while others satisfied the requirement with summer school work. (Others apparently avoided the situation with the help of sympathetic advisers.)

During Altman’s term as dean, the College adopted a series of reforms that applied to the distribution requirements of all four groups. Distribution could only be fulfilled with courses taken at Yale. And starting with the Class of 1993, a student had to pass three Group IV courses (two of them in the natural sciences) to earn a bachelor of arts degree.

But while there was some sentiment to the contrary, most professors realized that science literacy was not going to be achieved simply by throwing students into the often massive lecture-and-lab courses that serve to introduce future scientists to a particular discipline. Such “transition states,” as Altman calls them, are only the first way stations in the long, hierarchical process of accumulating the knowledge, techniques, and vocabulary that go into the scientific apprenticeship.

For non-science majors, however, the mandated exposure to biology or physics may be their only academic contact with the subject, so Altman and his fellow scientist-educators decided to take a different professorial tack. The result has been the creation of more than a dozen new courses designed, says Altman, to provide a look at what is “interesting and exciting” in a particular field, as well as to “overcome two inertial barriers: students saying, ‘I’m not interested,’ and ‘The problem has no relevance.’ These are difficult challenges.”

Among the responses are such courses as biologist Timothy Goldsmith’s “The Biological Roots of Human Nature,” physicist Michael Schmidt’s “Themes in General Physics,” and Sabatino Sofia’s “Life in the Universe,” each of which examines the central problems of a discipline and how the scientific method applies to them. They all find common ground in the technique of exploring their subject with a minimum of the mathematics and technical vocabulary that so often thwart the best intentions of the nonscientist. “But we’re not giving them pabulum,” insists Sofia, who has no use for the storied “physics for poets,” or “gut” courses of the past. “We teach students how to develop their ideas with full scientific rigor,” he says.

Of course, there are times when a little “show-biz” helps. Neuro­physiolo­gist Melvin J. Cohen, a professor of biology and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, has put together a course for non-majors titled “Human Physiology and the Emergence of Mind.” When he dealt last winter with the neurobiology of rhythm and music, Cohen called on an unorthodox collaborator, jazz musician Willie Ruff.

As an adjunct professor at the School of Music, Ruff teaches courses in rhythm, arranging, and instrumental music, including one on his favorite instrument, the French horn. He was intrigued by the invitation to bring music to bear in a scientific setting, and agreed to take part in Cohen’s course. In class last winter, Ruff began by quoting the opening line of W.C. Handy’s classic, “St. Louis Blues,” to the students as a way to demonstrate the role of rhythm in song and the connection between down beats and nerve cells. “I hate to see the evenin’ sun go down,” recited the musician, and then, to make certain no one in the group missed his point, Ruff played a few licks of the song. (He went on to show how the musings of 17th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler about the mathematical harmony of the planetary orbits could be translated into a high-tech “music of the spheres.”)

One member of the Yale faculty who is particularly enthusiastic about such approaches is physicist Edward Hinds, who heads a committee that is examining the best way to bring science to non-majors and is attempting to come up with a “blueprint” that lays out the fundamental areas everyone should understand. Ideally, Hinds says, courses like Cohen’s would be “excellent ones for majors to take. While we don’t require students to pass a science literacy test before they can graduate, we hope that they’ll be comfortable with such concepts as powers-of-ten, experimental design, and the scientific method, as well as why science is important as a civilized pursuit, and how to distinguish a real scientific argument from sheer baloney.”

The new distribution requirements and the courses they have inspired have clearly boosted the number of students who now take Group IV courses, but their presence doesn’t explain the dramatic rise in the number of Group IV majors. Much of the growth comes from students majoring in biology and MB&B, most of whom concentrate in these areas to better their chances of getting into medical school. Others pursue advanced training in the life sciences to take advantage of job opportunities in the developing field of biotechnology. To encourage prospective students who might not otherwise select science at Yale (or who might go elsewhere), the College has been involved in an aggressive promotional campaign directed at high school seniors and incoming freshmen. The effort, says Deborah Brown ’93, the College’s science and engineering coordinator, is beginning to pay off. “For the Class of 1993, 32 percent of the applicants indicated an intention of majoring in a Group IV discipline; for the Class of 1997, the figure is 40 percent,” says Brown, who majored in mechanical engineering.

One of Yale’s biggest attractions to prospective students, Brown says, is the College’s “Perspectives in Science” program. Begun in the fall of 1991 and modeled on the proven success of the nearly 20-year-old Directed Studies program in the humanities, “Perspectives” offers selected freshmen, through lectures and small discussion sections, a year-long over­view of science. “We designed the course to broaden students’ vision and show how the various disciplines relate to each other,” says chemist J. Michael McBride, who coordinated the program for its first two years (Robert Apfel, professor of mechanical engineering, organized it this year). “We also wanted to get students and faculty members from a wide range of sciences better acquainted with each other.”

Such community-building is an integral part of the program, and for those freshmen willing to take on this addition to an already weighty load of required courses, there is another potential reward. Thanks to a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Foundation, about half of this year’s 38 Perspectives students will receive $3,000-stipends to work in a research laboratory over the summer.

“The name of the game is how much time you can spend with professors,” notes Carl Elkin ’95, an alumnus of the first Perspectives class. At many universities, Elkin points out, freshmen and sophomores are lucky to see senior faculty members, let alone work with them, but at Yale, the Perspectives grant enabled the Morse College student to jump right into research and work closely with physicist Vernon Hughes, Sterling Professor Emeritus, on a particle physics investigation. More recently, Elkin has been using his expertise in math and physics to help MB&B investigator Axel Brünger characterize proteins. “This has been an absolutely fantastic opportunity,” says Elkin.

The ability to perform meaningful research is one draw; another is the quality of teaching. Although a professor’s success or failure depends primarily on the quality of his or her research—and the ability to attract grants—investigators are also expected to be leaders in the classroom. By and large, they are, says Douglas R. Kankel, chairman of the biology department. “There is a long-standing perception that science courses are less well taught,” Kankel says. “But it’s simply not true.” As evidence, he cites the testimony of his most critical customers—the undergraduates who write the annual (and anonymous) course critiques.

One complaint common at many universities is that science courses are often taught primarily by graduate students serving as “teaching assistants,” many of whom are foreign born and have a poor command of English. While the science lectures are delivered by professors, Kankel concedes that both the discussion and laboratory sections of Yale’s basic science courses are headed by TAs, an increasing number of whom are not native English-speakers. (Kankel notes that in biology, for example, 95 percent of the graduate students who applied for teaching positions used to come from American colleges; in the past two years, half the applicant pool consisted of native Chinese speakers. Math, engineering, and physics also attract numerous foreign graduate students who did not grow up speaking English.) But Jeremy Brown, associate dean of the Graduate School, is quick to add that special efforts are being made to guarantee that no matter what their country of origin, TAs will be able to communicate effectively.

Brown explains that communications problems, which are just as likely to involve cultural differences as language difficulties, have, so far, been rare. With the recent increase in the number of foreign graduate students enrolling at Yale, however, the Graduate School has, at the urging of a committee headed by Brown, instituted new testing procedures to ensure that all teaching assistants are competent English speakers. If they’re not, they must take special classes to bring them up to speed before they are allowed to teach. A further effort in that direction has been the establishment of workshops to ensure that the international contingent understands not just the basics of English, but also what Brown describes as the “idiosyncrasies of Yale” in particular and the American university system in general. “We want to see that no graduate student goes into a classroom feeling either uncomfortable with the language or unprepared for the local culture,” says Brown.

This need for better preparation has sparked the development of another program, this one overseen jointly by the Graduate School and the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, to bolster the instructional skills of teaching assistants. “Years ago, TAs were basically thrown into the pool, and it was sink or swim—there was no professional training,” notes Trip McCrossin, a graduate student in philosophy and coordinator of “Working at Teaching,” which began operations in the fall of 1991. In a series of five or six workshops, each about two hours long, students are exposed to a wide spectrum of teaching skills, from instruction in how to hold a stick of chalk to exercises in pedagogical theory. “We want to give them a bag of teaching tricks and help them to be more comfortable, no matter what discipline they teach,” says McCrossin, himself a veteran TA. “If we feel better about our teaching, undergraduate education will be better.”

Almost regardless of the quality of the teaching, science courses are notoriously hard to do well in, which is said to prompt some students worried about the number of A’s on their final transcripts to switch into other fields. There may indeed be those who leave for this reason, but by and large, science students are remarkably loyal. Every year, incoming freshmen are asked to state which of the four groups they plan to major in; when they graduate, this intention is compared by Yale statisticians with what actually happened. The comparison is called the “persistence rate,” and the higher the number, the more students held true to their initial plans.

Last year, the rate was nearly 60 percent for Group IV majors (up from 44 percent in 1988). The persistence figure is now exactly the same as that of Group II (humanities), and considerably above the 50.63 percent rate in Group III (Social Sciences) and the 45.67 percent rate in Group I (Language and Literature). Clearly, the efforts to first attract and then retain fledgling scientists are paying substantial dividends.

Of course, critics might counter that the persistence figure means that some 40 percent of those who started out intending to pursue a Group IV discipline wound up going after something very different. But that doesn’t worry Dean Brodhead. “In a place with as rich an intellectual landscape as Yale, you expect some students to change their minds,” he notes. “But for those who decide to stay with science, this is a great place to be.”  the end


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