The Story of Science at Yale, Part II: Sizing Up Science at Yale

Dennis Wang April 22, 2012 0

Much has changed since the Sheffield Scientific School, separate from Yale College, was founded in 1854. Today, science is an integral part of the liberal arts education at Yale and is a required component of the distributional requirements. Science education at Yale has evolved, and quantitative measures of the present state of science at Yale are the subject of constant scrutiny.

Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry Thomas Steitz won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for solving the structure and function of the ribosome. Like many Yale professors, Steitz has undergraduates working in his laboratory. Courtesy of Yale University.

Quantifying the Experience

According to a recent Yale Daily News article, 30 percent of freshmen at Yale start out in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM), but only 19.9 percent of seniors graduate with STEM degrees, compared to 28.5 percent of Harvard graduates and 36 percent of Stanford gradu¬ates. Retention in the sciences is low at Yale, which may be partly due to the strength of its Humanities and Social Science Departments. The Yale Scientific Magazine conducted a survey which found that 56 percent of science majors had seriously considered non-science majors, and that 64 percent of science majors were pre-medical students. Matriculation in the sciences, however, is lower than at Harvard, Stanford, or MIT, and explains the lower percentage of science graduates at Yale.

The numbers alone may not be reflective of the quality of Yale’s science programs. As noted by William Segraves, Associate Dean for Science Education, science at Yale is “an enormous enterprise with many dimensions.” Its merits and shortcomings deserve to be assessed independently by the students and faculty that they most affect.

Qualifying the Experience

The Yale Scientific Magazine asked 103 Yale science and non-science majors whether they agreed or disagreed with the following statements on a ten-point Likert scale, where “1” represented strong disagreement and “10” represented strong agreement. The results are arranged in the following table:

Claim Likert Scale
Science at Yale is stronger than social sciences or humanities at Yale. 2.6
Science at Yale is stronger than science at Harvard or other comparable schools. 4.8
Science at Yale has a strong reputation. 6.0
Science at Yale has a strong program. 6.0
Yale is doing enough to promote science education. 5.6
The overall science experience at Yale is good. 6.3

Additionally, survey respondents were asked what they considered to be the greatest strengths and weaknesses of science at Yale. Students believe that the sciences at Yale are stronger than their reputations imply, citing the low student-faculty ratio in advanced classes and peers with interests not limited to science. While science students at Yale represent a smaller minority of the population than at Harvard and Stanford, Michael McBride, Colgate Professor of Chemistry, notes that the focus of professors on undergraduate STEM education distinguishes Yale from comparable institutions with larger programs. Other students note the abundance of research opportunities and funding through the Science, Technology and Research Scholars (STARS) program and the freshman Perspectives on Science and Engineering (PSE) program. Segraves, who organizes PSE, notes that “research is deeply embedded in the culture here.”

However, science at Yale still has room for improvement. Science majors complain about the inconvenient location of Science Hill, ambiguity in grading, lack of course variety, poorly-taught introductory classes, and the lack of a full credit for labs. Science majors and non-majors identify a rift between the sciences and other disciplines, though student opinions vary on science distributional requirements and courses for non-majors. One student, in naming the best and worst things about science at Yale, quipped “being at a liberal arts school.”

Kline Biology Tower is the centerpiece of Science Hill, and was most recently renovated to include the new KBT Café and the Center for Science and Social Science Information as part of a series of upgrades to Yale’s older science facilities. Image courtesy of Yale University.

Looking Ahead

In 2000, President Richard Levin announced a $1 billion commitment to the sciences, expressing his hope that “our billion dollar investment means that the University’s image will change somewhat and that we’ll be recognized for our excellence in all fields.” Levin, who is a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, called for the STEM Teaching Transformation Committee to improve the quality of science facilities and education. Dean Mary Miller indicated in the 2011 Yale College Curricular Review that “Yale should make a commitment to do more to prevent [attrition from STEM majors] and potentially even attract more of our students to science and engineering,” noting that “the deferral of improvements to science and engineering facilities with the economic downturn has squeezed teaching and learning opportunities.”

It is not yet certain how science at Yale will change over the next five, ten, or 20 years as facilities, programs, and students continue to develop and evolve, but as Segraves says, “The only thing that’s certain is that it will be different!”

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