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So How's That Open Curriculum going ...

swaysoswayswaysosway 57 replies9 threads- Junior Member
edited October 2009 in Amherst College
Is it just like Brown's? Do you find people misuse it, to let's say, maybe defer history and/or math courses? Can you even do that? Is this Amherst's main appeal?

Just wanted some insight on the Open Curriculum.
edited October 2009
65 replies
Post edited by swaysosway on
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Replies to: So How's That Open Curriculum going ...

  • CorbettCorbett 3434 replies4 threads Senior Member
    There's a growing suspicion that an open curriculum tends to diminish science and math programs over the long run. So a school like Amherst will tend to have fewer science or math majors and faculty than comparable LACs without an open curriculum.

    The fact is that some (otherwise intelligent) people really hate studying science and math. Of course, other people might hate studying other things, like English or history or art. But it's widely assumed that the most commonly disliked disciplines are (1) math and (2) science. Foreign languages are third, but there are relatively few schools that have a strict foreign language requirement. It's much more difficult to completely avoid math and science.

    So the math-phobes and science-phobes are particularly likely to apply to those few schools where complete avoidance of these subjects is possible. This tilts the applicant pool towards potential humanities and social sciences majors at "open curriculum" schools.

    Furthermore, the math and science departments at "open curriculum" schools can't count on enrolling large numbers of students in intro classes to fulfill distribution requirements. So they need fewer faculty, so the departments shrink, which makes them less attractive to potential science and math majors.
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  • CorbettCorbett 3434 replies4 threads Senior Member
    I looked at the "Degrees Conferred" section of the last four Common Data Sets for Amherst, Williams, Swarthmore, and Wellesley, which are typically the LACs with the highest USN&WR rankings. I counted the percentage of degrees conferred in the fields of math, computer science, biological sciences, and physical sciences. Swarthmore, unlike the other schools, has an engineering program, so I counted that too.

    average % of math/science degrees, last 4 years:

    29.8 % Swarthmore (includes engineering)
    24.5 % Williams
    16.9 % Amherst
    12.3 % Wellesley (only last 3 years available)

    The Wellesley result is consistent with the general assumption that students at women's colleges are less likely to major in science and math (Bryn Mawr is a prominent exception). But coed Amherst appears to be closer to Wellesley in this regard than it is to other coed schools like Williams or Swarthmore. This difference is probably attributable, at least in part, to the effects of the open curriculum on the applicant pool and departmental enrollments.
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  • kwukwu 4743 replies16 threads Senior Member
    I'm more disturbed by those kids who stick with Computer Science, Mathematics, and Economics, and refuse to take classes in other departments. The significant number of pre-meds defeats the purpose of the Open Curriculum too. You'll have the former and the latter situation at Brown as well, so they aren't phenomena unique to Amherst.

    I'm happy I can avoid math, but I'm intent on taking Discrete Math and Intro to Statistics, which are respectable math courses.

    I've heard that 85 percent of Amherst students fulfill the equivalent of a "Core" by the time they graduate.
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  • CorbettCorbett 3434 replies4 threads 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.

    Based on current dept. web pages, I count the following numbers of math professors (not counting visiting, part-time, or emeritus profs, but including profs on leave):

    16 Williams
    14 Swarthmore
    12 Wellesley
    8 Amherst

    Granted, Wellesley and Williams are larger than Amherst -- but Williams is certainly not twice as large. And Swarthmore is smaller. Based purely on faculty appointments, I think it's likely that there really are fewer students taking math courses at Amherst. And I think it's also likely that this has something to do with the open curriculum.
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  • CorbettCorbett 3434 replies4 threads Senior Member
    In 2006, the Amherst College "Committee on Academic Priorities Report" commented on the existence of:
    “math anxiety” that leads some students to avoid subjects involving quantitative reasoning and scientific methods through their entire tenure at Amherst
    However, the CAP Report did not indicate the numbers of such students.

    The CAP Report's discussion of this issue ended on a note of apparent dissatisfaction and concern:
    The broader goal of encouraging greater exposure to quantitative forms of reasoning and the scientific method among all students has no simple solution ... further refinements may be necessary to foster the “quantitative literacy” that a thoughtful citizen must deploy in quotidian judgments about such matters as risk, reward, equity, correlation, and causation ... it appears prudent to develop instruments for assessing the quantitative reasoning of our students and for stimulating new approaches to improving their quantitative literacy ...
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  • 'rentof2'rentof2 4274 replies53 threads Senior Member
    The open curriculum at Amherst appealed to my son, but his college choice was not based on it at all. He is not interested in pursuing math or science as a major or a career, but the high level of math and science (and all core subject areas) required to even be admitted to Amherst and other similarly selective schools would ease me of concern about their quantitative literacy. My son took lab sciences through physics and calculus I & II at the local college before applying. I'm sure with all the honors, AP, IB, and college courses that applicants typically complete, their quantitative literacy is sufficient.

    My daughter is at the state univ, and to complete her gen ed science and math course requirements she took basically the same classes my son did before he entered Amherst.
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  • CorbettCorbett 3434 replies4 threads Senior Member
    Found old numbers presented by an Amherst math prof for students in the Classes of 1995 and 1996:

    37 % did not take any math or computer science courses at Amherst
    40 % did not take any lab science courses at Amherst

    It was acknowledged that the math number could include some students who did have calculus in high school, but did not pursue math further at Amherst. However, the prof noted that overall:
    Many students graduate from Amherst with no course, or perhaps just one, in mathematics and science
    Apparently this was perceived as an issue in Amherst's accreditation review:
    The reaccreditation report suggests that given these low percentages, Amherst should "either reconcile the rhetoric of non-mandatory course distribution guidelines, or adopt requirements."
    Amherst recently went through another accreditation review, so there might be more current numbers available if someone has access to the report.
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  • CorbettCorbett 3434 replies4 threads Senior Member
    I'm sure with all the honors, AP, IB, and college courses that applicants typically complete, their quantitative literacy is sufficient.
    Advanced high school coursework in science and math may or may not compensate, in terms of "quantitative literacy", for the lack of such coursework in college.

    But even if it does, it still seems likely that there are going to be fewer science/math students and fewer science/math faculty at a school where a large fraction of the enrollment does not take science/math courses. That may be happening at Amherst, for better or worse, as a result of the open curriculum.
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  • 'rentof2'rentof2 4274 replies53 threads Senior Member
    Intro level college math and science courses pretty much are advanced high school courses.

    Anyway, lots of schools have departments that are real magnets for students and others that are less so. Most of them don't have an open curriculum. I suppose the College will do something about it if they determine that it's a problem and needs addressing.

    For my son, it's a gift to be able to take the courses that feed his areas of interest. Eight semesters is a short time. There is so much that he'd like to study, and professors from whom he'd like to learn. He can already see there won't be a way to do everything he'd like to do there. Thankfully, he at least won't have to use up some of those precious 32 classes on subjects that are merely to fulfill requirements and for which he will have no further use.

    I think it's valid to say an open curriculum can have certain effects. No doubt. One of them may well be that topics which many students are adverse to may become less of a focus. On the other hand, double majoring, for example, is a good deal easier to achieve at a school with an open curriculum. And there are different schools with different cultures and expectations... so, something for everyone. Amherst won't be everyone's cup of tea.
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  • mythmommythmom 8292 replies13 threads Senior Member
    I am undecided about my feelings about open curricula vs. cores or distribution requirements. I will say that the science courses I took to satisfy my distribution requirements were two of the best courses I took throughout my college career, and I never would have taken them except for the requirement that I do.

    My D said she was pleased about the distribution requirements are her school because some of the kids, at this was at an elite LAC, had never done a graph. She didn't think she required the classes was nevertheless pleased that the school insisted that everyone have a certain level of across the board competency. She also had a four semester language requirement.

    I agree with 'rent that the students Amherst attracts don't college courses in math and/or science to ensure quantitative literacy. I am sure they really do have them already.

    So, if a student really wants an open curriculum I am pleased for them that schools like Brown, Smith and Amherst exist. All three of these schools have been very successful in producing achievers in their own fields so apparently it's not a problem.

    These is a confused post, but I have conflicting feelings. I would never criticize Amherst; I am just not sure about my own values on this issue.
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  • TuppenceTuppence 133 replies1 threads Junior Member
    Corbett's comments are interesting. They make me wonder if upgrading the science facilities at Amherst has been slower in coming, when compared to Williams, Swarthmore, & other LACs, in part because of the open curriculum.

    I'm not saying the curriculum led to that, but that greater needs or demands in other areas were more readily apparent.
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  • CorbettCorbett 3434 replies4 threads Senior Member
    They make me wonder if upgrading the science facilities at Amherst has been slower in coming, when compared to Williams, Swarthmore, & other LACs, in part because of the open curriculum.
    It's widely acknowledged that Merrill Science Center is badly in need of renovation, and that it lags way behind the science facilities at many peer LACs. Unfortunately, it appears that the renovation may be delayed due to the current budget problems.

    It would be unfair to hold the open curriculum solely responsible for the Merrill situation. But the open curriculum may have been a contributing factor, if it led to a decline in science enrollments. It does seem possible that departments with falling enrollments may be less likely to get funding for major infrastructure upgrades than popular departments that are running out of classroom space.
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  • sptchsptch 168 replies2 threads Junior Member
    DD loved the Open Curriculum, and didn't take any science or math. She had already completed those in AP in high school, and was able to dabble in areas she would have never tried otherwise. Worked well for her. She experienced courses alnd learned things that really interested her, and she is doing very well.
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  • CorbettCorbett 3434 replies4 threads Senior Member
    I think it's valid to say an open curriculum can have certain effects.
    I agree -- and I also think that schools with such a curriculum, like Amherst, should be candid about those effects. The question posed by the Original Poster -- “do people misuse the open curriculum?” –- is a perfectly valid and reasonable one. Some relevant information on the way that the open curriculum is actually used would be of great interest to many prospective students and their families. But Amherst does not provide it.

    My guess is that a substantial percentage of Amherst students do, in fact, largely or entirely blow off math and science coursework. I also think it’s probable that Amherst has fewer science/math majors, fewer science/math faculty, and poorer science/math facilities than most comparable coed LACs. It’s not unreasonable to see a possible connection between these points. If so, these are effects that should be acknowledged.
    And there are different schools with different cultures and expectations... so, something for everyone.
    Agreed. I don’t necessarily object to an open curriculum, or even to a diminished role for science/math. There is a spectrum running from arts schools to tech schools, with lots of places in between.

    But I don’t think Amherst is completely upfront about its position on that spectrum. In terms of institutional math/science emphasis, Amherst may be closer to Wellesley than it is to Williams. That’s perfectly OK – as long as prospective science and math majors are aware of it. But I’m not convinced that they are.
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  • katbenckatbenc 35 replies0 threads Junior Member
    I personally love the open curriculum; it is the primary reason I chose to come to Amherst. That being said, I've taken classes in fourteen different departments thus far, ranging from math and computer science to religion and art history. I can't comment on the number of math faculty, but if you look at the number of math majors it's a very different picture. I couldn't find numbers for Wellesley or Swarthmore without more dedicated searching, so I'm using Bowdoin's numbers instead.

    Math Majors
    Amherst: 56
    Bowdoin: 31
    Williams: 44

    Computer Science Majors
    Amherst: 22
    Bowdoin: 15
    Williams: 12

    Chemistry Majors
    Amherst: 40
    Bowdoin: 11
    Williams: 25

    Biology Majors
    Amherst: 70
    Bowdoin: 55
    Williams: 54

    Physics Majors
    Amherst: 27
    Bowdoin: 30
    Williams: 13 (plus 4 Astrophysics)

    I think it's pretty clear that the lack of science requirements does not reduce Amherst's emphasis on math and sciences. Merrill's inadequacies are numerous, but they certainly haven't reduced the popularity of the science programs here. Maybe look at it this way: without lots of introductory math and science classes designed for people who are just trying to fulfill GEs, the departments have more resources to devote to those students who are actually interested in the subject. You can put just about any spin on it you want, though, which I think is why the open curriculum is still controversial.
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  • CorbettCorbett 3434 replies4 threads 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?
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  • CorbettCorbett 3434 replies4 threads 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:

    44 Williams
    15 Amherst

    Computer Sci:
    12 Williams
    13 Amherst

    25 Williams
    13 Amherst

    54 Williams
    25 Amherst

    13 Williams
    10 Amherst

    9 Williams
    9 Amherst

    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
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  • interesteddadinteresteddad 23879 replies298 threads 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.
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  • JessephenJessephen 116 replies16 threads 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.
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  • interesteddadinteresteddad 23879 replies298 threads 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.
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