Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Introductory Science
October 2014 (revised November 2014)
Members: Kris Anderson, John Essick, Jim Fix, Joel Franklin (Chair), Julie Fry, Arthur Glasfeld, Mary James, Jay Mellies, Suzy Renn
Charge: Make recommendations about ways to diversify introductory science offerings and improve staffing ratios.
The committee is to continue the work of the Strategic Planning Group A, and issue concrete recommendations for expansion of the introductory science program, in particular the classes counting for Group C credit. In its report (pp.6-8), Group A recommended “refashioning introductory science through proposals that would broaden offerings at the 100- and 200- level in each department,” but also noted that “The caveat associated with each of these proposals is that they require additional resources. In addition to new FTEs that could be used to staff additional courses, there would be a need for new physical facilities such as laboratory, classroom and office space, as well as additional staff support to manage the more complex flow of laboratory work within a given week and support the additional faculty.” The relevant section of the Group A report is attached.
The ad hoc committee’s proposals may thus include additional faculty, additional staff support, and additional facilities, and these resources can also build capacity, address needs etc., especially for thesis supervision, in the upper-level curricula.
In line with CAPP’s prescriptions, the committee should recommend oneposition to be filled immediately in either Chemistry or Biology (or both) in order to fill the position made available by the Amgen gift.
Please note that we are looking to put together a group of interested and distinguished scientists from among our alumni and friends, most probably to be called the Science Excellence Advisory Council, in order to benefit from their perspectives and inform and involve them in the long-term planning for and support of Reed science. Some of the members will be from academic research institutions and some from scientific companies, most will be alumni and all will have Reed connections. The Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Introductory Science will need, together with the Dean of the Faculty, the Vice President for College Relations and the Director of Development, to think about how we can make best use of this group, and how we can most effectively excite their interest. Right now meetings are penciled in for the board meetings of February and October 2015, and February 2016.
In addition, the committee will receive information about funding sources that might be relevant. These are not meant to direct the conversation in any direction, but to inform the committee of what support is out there, if any of the proposals fit, and, in such cases, to get a head start in the conversations between the committee and our corporate and foundation fundraisers. One obvious example is the various grants that come under the umbrella NSF’s push to focus on undergraduate STEM education.
If possible, please have the final report ready by the end of September 2015; CAPP will also check in with the committee after spring break.
Appendix: From the Report of the Foundational Curriculum Strategic Planning Working Group A
III. Introductory Science
In our preliminary report, we identified three points of tension/concern with respect to Group C:
- There is relatively limited choice for students fulfilling the requirement, with only three year-long introductory sequences in biology, chemistry and physics.
- Class size is unusually large by College standards and faculty staffing ratios are low given the number of enrolled students.
- Over 20% of all graduates in majors outside the Division of Mathematics and Natural Sciences who started at Reed transfer credit to Reed towards fulfilling Group C.
The three natural science departments are justifiably proud of their courses, which annually enroll about 450 Reed students (many taking more than one of the courses), and which serve as gateways to their successful programs. Still, it cannot be denied that Group C represents, at least by reputation, one of the more challenging aspects of the foundational curriculum for students outside the Division. We have repeatedly heard, from students and advisors, that students opt to complete the work off-campus due to the perceived difficulty of the courses, and there is some evidence that students who apply for financial aid are more likely to satisfy Group C on campus. Other reasons that we have heard relate to workload and scheduling (each requires between 7-8 class hours per week) and the large size of the classes. While the concern about difficulty may be misplaced (the Bio department has, for example, found no significant difference in the performance of MNS majors and non-MNS majors in Bio 101/102; indeed, even students with AP Biology credit have only a small advantage (of 4%)), the other issues are undeniably real.
Interestingly, despite concerns related to accessibility, we heard no voices arguing for the return of a non-majors course, such as Nat Sci 110. In 1990’s, the last decade in which Nat Sci was taught, roughly 100 students a year completed Group C via that course, while roughly 120-150 students were enrolled in Bio 101/102, and about 100 each in the introductory Chemistry and Physics courses. Although it had a mixed reputation at the time, Nat Sci provided an important fourth option for students completing Group C, and it often addressed topics in the sciences, such as environmental chemistry and astrophysics, that were not addressed elsewhere in the curriculum at that time. Thus its disappearance not only led to the growth of the other first year science courses (Bio 101/102 has notably grown to regularly serve 200 students in a year), with attendant difficulties in course management and providing faculty attention for student work, but it has also reduced the diversity of offerings for students at the introductory level. Despite those concerns, it does not appear that students or faculty are eager to add back another large lecture course that may be perceived as intellectually inferior by the community and does not provide a gateway into majoring.
We did find limited interest in redefining the Group C requirement. A proposal from the Mathematics Department to place their courses in a 3-unit Group C was met with some interest from elsewhere in the Division, so long as the two-units of laboratory science is retained as a requirement, but there was also concern about how to manage the effective dissolution of Group D and the placement of foreign language within the group structure. Similarly, some discussion of including appropriate Psychology courses within Group C was met with interest, but serious concerns about staffing, facilities and accessibility of the 300-level courses that could currently qualify for the requirement make this a challenging prospect. Given these concerns, our working group has not chosen to recommend any redefinition of Group C at this time, though we encourage faculty discussion of the topic if it is deemed of interest.
Instead, our working group, through conversations with the natural science departments, has found the greatest promise in refashioning introductory science through proposals that would broaden offerings at the 100- and 200- level in each department. The Physics Department offered the most concrete proposals for new courses at the 100-level that would address special topics in Physics at an approachable level that should be appropriate to the mathematical skills of non-majors while attracting the interest of science majors as well. Biology has indicated an interest in creating additional sections of 100-level courses, any two of which could be used towards the major or towards Group C, and has additionally suggested the creation of 200-level courses that might be paired with a single unit of 100-level work. Chemistry likewise expressed interest in creating new 100-level courses. A recent hire of an astronomer in physics and the anticipated hiring of a computational biologist point to additional opportunities to broaden the introductory curriculum. In addition, the chemistry department has noted interest within the department for hiring a geochemist who could offer a one-semester course in introductory geology, a course that could be paired with another unit of physical science according to the current Group C language.
The caveat associated with each of these proposals is that they require additional resources. In addition to new FTEs that could be used to staff additional courses, there would be a need for new physical facilities such as laboratory, classroom and office space, as well as additional staff support to manage the more complex flow of laboratory work within a given week and support the additional faculty. Our working group feels that this investment is merited by the potential improvement in student experience and education while enrolled in introductory science courses. The proposals discussed above will add attractive and accessible courses to the first year curriculum and improve student-faculty ratios in introductory science courses, while still supporting the top-notch education that each department has traditionally provided its future majors.
We also note that the Division has lagged behind the rest of the College in added faculty positions over the past two decades. While approximately 33 new tenure lines have been added across the college since 1988 (approximately 31 new permanent FTE), only four of those (not including the not-yet-hired computational biologist) have been in the natural sciences, with one of them partially dedicated to the new interdisciplinary program in environmental studies. Given the growth of the college by c.175 FPE (i.e. students) over the same period, stresses have naturally been felt strongly in those few courses available for students completing Group C. Our working group strongly supports further development of proposals from the departments and recommends that the faculty prioritize this investment in the curriculum.