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So How's That Open Curriculum going ...

245

Replies to: So How's That Open Curriculum going ...

  • CorbettCorbett Registered User Posts: 3,438 Senior Member
    I think you need to recheck your numbers. Amherst itself offers a detailed tabulation of declared majors from 1980 to 2009. Here's what Amherst says for the Class of 2009, compared to your numbers:

    Math: 17 (vs. your 56)
    Computer Science: 5 (vs. your 22)
    Chemistry: 14 (vs. your 40)
    Biology: 32 (vs. your 70)
    Physics: 9 (vs. your 27)

    Obviously your numbers appear to be higher, by a factor of 3-4, than Amherst's own numbers. Where exactly are you getting these Amherst, Williams, and Bowdoin numbers?
  • CorbettCorbett Registered User Posts: 3,438 Senior Member
    The Williams numbers seem OK, they appear to be derived from a 5-year average distribution from 2004-2008. Using the Amherst table, we can readily calculate equivalent 5-year average numbers for 2004-2008 for Amherst. Results:

    Math:
    44 Williams
    15 Amherst

    Computer Sci:
    12 Williams
    13 Amherst

    Chemistry:
    25 Williams
    13 Amherst

    Biology:
    54 Williams
    25 Amherst

    Physics:
    13 Williams
    10 Amherst

    Geology/Geosciences:
    9 Williams
    9 Amherst

    Astronomy/Astrophysics:
    5 Williams
    1 Amherst

    Total, all above fields
    162 Williams
    86 Amherst

    Total, all majors (includes double and triple-majors)
    683 Williams
    561 Amherst

    Science/math majors as % of total
    23.7 % Williams
    15.3 % Amherst

    The final numbers are reasonably consistent with the values previously shown for these schools in post #3 above
  • interesteddadinteresteddad Registered User Posts: 24,177 Senior Member
    I've heard a different statistic, that the fraction of Amherst students who graduate without a math or science course is substantial. But I don't have any concrete data.

    There is concrete data in Amherst's recemt accreditation visiting panel report (led by Pres. Al Bloom of Swarthmore). It's an issue of some concern at Amherst:

    Here is an extended quote:
    The Open Curriculum: At Amherst the general education expectation (Catalogue, p.69) is indeed “coherent and substantive. It embodies the institution‟s definition of an educated person and prepares students for the world in which they will live” (NEASC 4.15). That expectation – often unfamiliar to faculty advisors and students – has been complicated by new concerns over writing and quantitative and informational skills and needs rethinking and reformulation by CEP and the Faculty. A central challenge – noted in the 1998 review and in the 2008 Self-Study – remains translation of the expectations into patterns of student course-taking and learning in the context of an open curriculum to which the faculty is fiercely committed.

    Transcript review for classes of 2002-06 suggests that there has been little or no progress toward greater breadth of course-taking by Amherst students since 1995-96. Whereas, 63% of students a decade ago took math or computer science courses, only 56% did in 2002-06; the same pattern holds for lab science courses (60% vs. 44%) and creative arts (<50% vs. 42%). Even the percentages taking three or more courses in the humanities (99% vs. 88%) and social sciences (90% vs. 87%) declined. These patterns continue to be inconsistent with Amherst‟s clear aspirations for breadth articulated in the Catalogue.

    This issue was a central point of research and discussion in the extensive and impressive Report of the Special Committee on the Amherst Education in 2003. In addition, that report also emphasized the fundamental competencies of writing and quantitative analysis and both the challenge and importance of finding ways to assist students to undertake broad educations and build those skills in the context of that open curriculum. The CEP currently is examining ways of establishing a clearer accounting of student progress toward achieving curricular breadth and anticipates a rethinking of the broader aspirations for a liberal education that have long been inscribed in the Catalogue.

    A comprehensive review of pre-major advising appears also to be on the CEP agenda. Advising for first- and second-year students continues to be widely viewed as not fully successful in encouraging students to explore the curriculum as widely as the College hopes they will. We highlight the importance of moving forward in conjunction with review of expectations for general education.
  • JessephenJessephen Registered User Posts: 132 Junior Member
    How long has Amherst had open curriculum? Judging by the table referenced in the above post, which goes back to 1980, there doesn't seem to be a significant change in numbers of individual majors in math and sciences since 1980 to 2009. There is much variation year to year but not a trend shown in the table.
  • interesteddadinteresteddad Registered User Posts: 24,177 Senior Member
    I agree -- and I also think that schools with such a curriculum, like Amherst, should be candid about those effects.

    That's really the issue. I am increasingly of the belief that the open curriculum is one of Amherst's major "brand attributies", i.e. that many students choose Amherst because it allows them to blow off science or math or English lit.

    That's perfectly fine. In a free market, consumers should have those options. On the other hand, Amherst needs to be honest about it. When only 44% of graduates take a lab science course, a college really needs to stop saying that they believe in "breadth" in the academic program. That is clearly not true in practice.
  • interesteddadinteresteddad Registered User Posts: 24,177 Senior Member
    Here they are with Swarthmore's numbers. I've used four-year averages because that's what I could easily tally. I assigned some predefined special majors like Biochem and Chem Physics to Chemistry for consistency. I've added Engineering, because it is a signficant part of the math/science/tech/computer curriculum at Swarthmore.

    Math:
    44 Williams
    15 Amherst
    24 Swarthmore

    Computer Sci:
    12 Williams
    13 Amherst
    12 Swarthmore

    Chemistry:
    25 Williams
    13 Amherst
    12 Swarthmore

    Biology:
    54 Williams
    25 Amherst
    47 Swarthmore

    Physics:
    13 Williams
    10 Amherst
    10 Swarthmore

    Geology/Geosciences:
    9 Williams
    9 Amherst
    0 Swarthmore

    Astronomy/Astrophysics:
    5 Williams
    1 Amherst
    4 Swarthmore

    Engineering:
    0 Williams
    0 Amherst
    21 Swarthmore

    Total, all above fields
    162 Williams
    86 Amherst
    130 Swarthmore

    Total, all majors (includes double and triple-majors)
    683 Williams
    561 Amherst
    439 Swarthmore

    Science/math majors as % of total
    23.7 % Williams
    15.3 % Amherst
    29.6 % Swarthmore

    My comment: I think the percentage of math/science majors is a clear, substantive differentiating characterisitic of Amherst, relative to its two east coast peers. These percentages along with the broader implications of the open curriculum may well be Amherst's most differentiating characteristic as no other uber-endowment LAC has an open curriculum. In that sense, Amherst is perhaps most analagous to Brown from an academic standpoint.
  • interesteddadinteresteddad Registered User Posts: 24,177 Senior Member
    How long has Amherst had open curriculum?

    I'm not an expert on Amherst history, but most open curriculums were products of the 60s and 70s. They were kind of the rage at the time, with experimental schools like Hampshire and New College offering anything goes curriculums.

    A reasonable case can be made that, if students don't want to take math or science, they should be able to decide for themselves. The downside is what we see in the percentage of math and science majors at Amherst. At what point does it stop being a liberal arts education? At what point can you no longer justify all the (hideously expensive) science departments. Scripps/Claremont McKenna/Pitzer have a "joint science department" shared betweeen the three schools with a skeleton factulty, just the bare-bones course offerings in Bio, Physics, and Chemistry. The three schools have virtually no science majors. That, of course, has implications on campus culture, even dorm life, that ripple across the college. In the opposite direction, it could be argued that the lack of non-science majors in the community is the biggest disadvantage of tech schools.
  • kwukwu Registered User Posts: 4,759 Senior Member
    When only 44% of graduates take a lab science course, a college really needs to stop saying that they believe in "breadth" in the academic program.

    I fear your criticism of Amherst is without merit. I welcome you to read Amherst's "Mission Statement," so that you have a clearer, correct idea of what it stands for and what it purports to do.

    https://www.amherst.edu/aboutamherst/mission

    Amherst College educates men and women of exceptional potential from all backgrounds so that they may seek, value, and advance knowledge, engage the world around them, and lead principled lives of consequence.

    Amherst brings together the most promising students, whatever their financial need, in order to promote diversity of experience and ideas within a purposefully small residential community. Working with faculty, staff, and administrators dedicated to intellectual freedom and the highest standards of instruction in the liberal arts, Amherst undergraduates assume substantial responsibility for undertaking inquiry and for shaping their education within and beyond the curriculum.

    Amherst College is committed to learning through close colloquy and to expanding the realm of knowledge through scholarly research and artistic creation at the highest level. Its graduates link learning with leadership—in service to the College, to their communities, and to the world beyond.
  • interesteddadinteresteddad Registered User Posts: 24,177 Senior Member
    Page 74 of the printed course catalog:
    Under the curriculum, most members of the Faculty serve as academic advisors
    to students. Every student has a College Advisor until he or she declares a
    major, no later than the end of the sophomore year; thereafter each student will
    have a Major Advisor from the student’s fi eld of concentration. As student and
    advisor together plan a student’s program, they should discuss whether the
    student has selected courses that:

    • provide knowledge of culture and a language other than one’s own and of
    human experience in a period before one’s lifetime;
    • analyze one’s own polity, economic order, and culture;
    • employ abstract reasoning;
    • work within the scientifi c method;
    • engage in creative action—doing, making and performing;
    • interpret, evaluate, and explore the life of the imagination.

    THE MAJOR REQUIREMENT

    Liberal education seeks to develop the student’s awareness and understanding
    of the individual and of the world’s physical and social environments. If
    one essential object in the design of education at Amherst is breadth of understanding,
    another purpose, equally important, is mastery of one or more
    areas of knowledge in depth.

    I don't have any objection to an open curriculum. It appears that being able to dodge science and math is a positive selling feature with at least some appeal to Amherst students.

    It is Amherst's own educational policy committees that have placed importance on breath of study. One way to achieve that would be to reserve more admissions slots for science and math students. It's tough to find the slots though. Plus, the lower numbers of science majors becomes a self-fulfilling feedback loop as it is harder to attract science and math majors. Both Swarthmore and Williams have spectacular new science facilities and large, vibrant science communities doing cool stuff like building hydrogen fuel cell powered motorcycles. That makes recruiting top science and math students easier, just like having a top soccer team makes it easier to recruit top soccer players.

    With Merrill Science Center renovations on hold, I think Amherst might be better off simply pitching the heck out of the Open Curriculum. Anyone smart enough to have a shot at Amherst can figure out that means they don't have to take science or math. Think East Coast version of Claremont-McKenna. It's obviously working for Amherst. If it ain't broke, why fix it?
  • 181818181818 Registered User Posts: 381 Member
    CMC has a very specific math and science requirement.
  • sunmachinesunmachine Registered User Posts: 824 Member
    "... no other uber-endowment LAC has an open curriculum."

    Grinnell? I think it has an open curriculum. Would be interested in seeing its numbers re: participation in math and science.
  • interesteddadinteresteddad Registered User Posts: 24,177 Senior Member
    Thanks. I stand corrected. Grinnell does have an open curriculum. It also has a lot of math/science majors. Adding Grinnell's 5-year averages (with BioChem added to Bio):

    Math:
    44 Williams
    15 Amherst
    24 Swarthmore
    23 Grinnell

    Computer Sci:
    12 Williams
    13 Amherst
    12 Swarthmore
    18 Grinnell

    Chemistry:
    25 Williams
    13 Amherst
    12 Swarthmore
    14 Grinnell

    Biology:
    54 Williams
    25 Amherst
    47 Swarthmore
    45 Grinnell

    Physics:
    13 Williams
    10 Amherst
    10 Swarthmore
    14 Grinnell

    Geology/Geosciences:
    9 Williams
    9 Amherst
    0 Swarthmore
    0 Grinnell

    Astronomy/Astrophysics:
    5 Williams
    1 Amherst
    4 Swarthmore
    0 Grinnell

    Engineering:
    0 Williams
    0 Amherst
    21 Swarthmore
    0 Grinnell

    Total, all above fields
    162 Williams
    86 Amherst
    130 Swarthmore
    114 Grinnell

    Total, all majors (includes double and triple-majors)
    683 Williams
    561 Amherst
    439 Swarthmore
    423 Grinnell

    Science/math majors as % of total
    23.7% Williams
    15.3% Amherst
    29.6% Swarthmore
    27.0% Grinnell
  • mythmommythmom Registered User Posts: 8,305 Senior Member
    Clearly, Grinnell has not be "branded" with its open curriculum the way Amherst has. It's the only game in town for an elite LAC in that part of country (MN and OH are something else) so obviously many science based kids are attending Grinnell as well.
  • interesteddadinteresteddad Registered User Posts: 24,177 Senior Member
    Thanks Corbett. This is an eye-opening addition to the statistics that help understand the "culture" that defines each college - statistical puzzle pieces like diversity, percentage on fin. aid, SAT scores, per student endowment, and so forth.

    Here's a sample of interesting schools from the IPEDS data base for five years (2003-2007), totalling first/second majors in the science fields we've referenced above as a percentage of total first/second majors. I've listed them by percentage of science math majors:

    30.4% -- Princeton University
    30.0% -- Carleton College
    28.9% -- Swarthmore College
    26.3% -- Grinnell College
    26.0% -- Haverford College
    23.5% -- Williams College
    23.2% -- Harvard University
    23.1% -- Bryn Mawr College
    21.2% -- Dartmouth College
    19.1% -- Brown University
    17.8% -- Pomona College
    16.9% -- Yale University
    16.8% -- Davidson College
    16.6% -- Bowdoin College
    16.1% -- Smith College
    15.6% -- Washington and Lee University
    14.8% -- Amherst College
    12.2% -- Wesleyan University
    12.0% -- Claremont McKenna College
    11.7% -- Wellesley College
    11.2% -- Middlebury College
    10.8% -- Vassar College
  • interesteddadinteresteddad Registered User Posts: 24,177 Senior Member
    Clearly, Grinnell has not be "branded" with its open curriculum the way Amherst has. It's the only game in town for an elite LAC in that part of country (MN and OH are something else) so obviously many science based kids are attending Grinnell as well.

    No question. Grinnell is making the open curriculum work and still maintain impressive balance across divisions, at least on a macro level.

    One of the surprises on this list, in part because it's the only game in town, is Davidson. Davidson has a reputation as a very academic place and also a big pre-med feeder. I'm surprised by the small number of science majors.

    I'm also surpised by Amherst, Yale, Pomona, and Bowdoin.

    I know Williams has a "potential science PhD" tag in the admissions office. They target math and science majors as an explicit admissions priority with an eye on overall PhD production rates. I think most of these schools probably do that to some extent as declining numbers of math/science majors has been an issue in US higher ed for some time. Imbalances create all kinds of problems from overenrollment in Econ courses to unpleasantries like deciding if you can continue to justify a Physics department. These issues are mostly hypothetical at the big-endowment schools, but there are schools that have to be taking long hard looks at the per student cost of science departments.
This discussion has been closed.