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So How's That Open Curriculum going ...

124

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

  • CorbettCorbett Registered User Posts: 3,438 Senior 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.
    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
    The 1960s is apparently the correct time frame:
    Amherst College is currently one of the few American colleges to have an open curriculum, without distribution requirements. However, this curriculum was only put in place beginning in the 1960s. Before that, Amherst had a traditional curriculum, with various requirements for graduation.
  • mpnsoftmpnsoft Registered User Posts: 81 Junior Member
    Since I currently have daughters at both Brown & Amherst who specifically chose the schools with the open curriculum in mind as a priority, I thought I’d provide my own perspective here...

    My Brown senior is a math & economics major. Her transcript reveals difficult courses that are spread among a variety of subjects that would satisfy distribution requirements at most colleges.

    My Amherst freshman expects to major in math & biology. She’s currently taking multi variable calculus among her other science, music, and humanities courses. I expect that she too will take a broad range of courses that don’t demonstrate a “lopsided” transcript.

    Since both girls received perfect scores on a variety of math & science SAT & AP tests, they certainly don’t fall into any category that stereotypes students in an “open” curriculum as math & science averse. In fact, like most of their friends at these schools, they hyper-excelled in a variety of areas – including music and sports – during high school.

    Both schools were chosen after careful review of the math departments. Math departments at most colleges have issues of one sort or another because math majors are generally rare compared with other subjects. Though the Amherst department is indeed small, thus far, all indications point to the possibility of an excellent education. And there are potential pluses to go along with the minuses. Of course, a small department does mean fewer courses in a smaller variety of subject areas.

    Finally, the # of majors in hard sciences at these schools doesn’t necessarily correspond to the concept that English & History majors rarely or never take science courses at these schools. So, though there are undoubtedly students who avoid math & science at places like Amherst, a quick look at the school’s SAT breakdown should get across the point that the school generally accepts students who excel in multiple areas. And none of the students I know personally at Brown or Amherst fall into the purported categories discussed in this thread.
  • mythmommythmom Registered User Posts: 8,305 Senior Member
    mpnsoft: Thank you for a much needed perspective, and congratulations on your talented daughters.
  • CorbettCorbett Registered User Posts: 3,438 Senior Member
    I currently have daughters at both Brown & Amherst who specifically chose the schools with the open curriculum in mind as a priority
    Maybe this is a dumb question, but given that your daughters have wide-ranging interests (good for them) and have (or will) take courses in a variety of departments (again, good for them) -- then why was the open curriculum a priority ?

    Or to put it another way: what is the downside of schools with distribution requirements, if your course selection will be broad enough to fufill distribution requirements anyway ?
  • CorbettCorbett Registered User Posts: 3,438 Senior Member
    Finally, the # of majors in hard sciences at these schools doesn’t necessarily correspond to the concept that English & History majors rarely or never take science courses at these schools.
    No, but that seems to be the way that it works at Amherst. The info in Amherst's latest accreditation report (see post #19 above) indicates that only 56% of students in the Classes of 2002-2006 took a math or computer science course, and only 44% took a lab science course. Those figures include the math/science majors, so obviously the numbers would be even lower for majors in other disciplines.

    Based on the available data, it would seem that Amherst has both a low number of math/science majors (at least relative to other top LACs), and relative disinterest in math/science among the humanities majors.
  • mpnsoftmpnsoft Registered User Posts: 81 Junior Member
    Maybe this is a dumb question, but given that your daughters have wide-ranging interests (good for them) and have (or will) take courses in a variety of departments (again, good for them) -- then why was the open curriculum a priority ?

    Or to put it another way: what is the downside of schools with distribution requirements, if your course selection will be broad enough to fufill distribution requirements anyway ?


    Ideally, you’d have to ask them that. But, especially with the younger one, she was willing to make other sacrifices to attend an “open curriculum” school.
    If I had to sum it up on their behalf, I’d guess they wanted to maximize their control in order to take what they wanted when they wanted with the widest possible degree of freedom… but that doesn’t necessarily mean they believe distribution requirements are inherently “bad.” They simply chose the option of being free of such constraints. I know my oldest daughter will graduate Brown wishing she’d had time to take other courses that interested her. Imagine how she might feel if she’d missed an opportunity to take a class she coveted in order to fulfill someone else’s concept of what she needed to learn…
  • mpnsoftmpnsoft Registered User Posts: 81 Junior Member
    Based on the available data, it would seem that Amherst has both a low number of math/science majors (at least relative to other top LACs), and relative disinterest in math/science among the humanities majors.

    Isn’t your use of the word “disinterest” an assumption based on the stats? For instance, Amherst doesn’t award credit for A.P.’s. Do you know which kids took A.P. Calculus and A.P. Chemistry in High School and decided that now they’d devote the fleeting time they have at Amherst to other pursuits? And is that inherently bad? These are very bright kids – many of whom will educate themselves in a variety of subjects.

    Jessica got a 5 on the A.P. Physics test. Suppose she doesn’t take any additional Physics courses at Amherst. Your #’s only tell us that she didn’t take the course at Amherst – not whether she’s using the open curriculum concept as a crutch. In fact, I think that looking at students who chose to go to Amherst through the lens provided by these numbers simply leaves us with a skewed view of the school and tells us little about how knowledgeable students actually are in a variety of disciplines.

    Most of the adults I know don’t retain the information they don’t use. In the remote past, I learned Spanish, lived in Guadalajara, Mexico, and spoke the language. Now, I barely remember a word. If you force a student to take a math course for the sake of providing a broader education… and the student never uses the knowledge and can’t help his or her own kids with their homework in that subject years later… precisely what have you achieved? (Of course, if you can get students excited about classes outside their comfort zones, that’s a different story.)

    Regardless, I was simply providing my own experience and that of my daughters.
  • CorbettCorbett Registered User Posts: 3,438 Senior Member
    The question is not whether the open curriculum is inherently "good" or "bad". No one is denying that Amherst can offer whatever curriculum it sees fit.

    The question is whether the open curriculum has any particular effects. Hence the title of this thread: "So how's that open curriculum going?". In particular, the Original Poster asked if Amherst students, given complete freedom to choose courses, tended to avoid particular disciplines.

    This is a perfectly fair question. It deserves an answer.

    The reality seems to be that Amherst students do, in fact, tend to avoid math and science courses. They are also less likely to major in math or science, at least relative to peer institutions like Williams or Swarthmore. Both of these facts are consistent with the hypothesis that the open curriculum is disproportionately attractive to applicants who do not want to study math or science in college.

    Given that math and science departments at Amherst have relatively few majors and low non-major enrollment, it is not surprising to find that math/science faculty numbers are low (again relative to Williams and Swarthmore), and that renovation of the science facilities has been postponed for decades. These seem like significant effects.

    I have no objection to an open curriculum, or even to de-emphasis of science and math. But I do think Amherst should be candid about the way that the open curriculum works in practice. Amherst obviously uses the open curriculum as a key selling point -- yet it seems (correct me if I'm wrong) that the data needed to address the Original Poster's (simple) question can only be found buried in password-protected reaccreditation reports prepared independently by NEASC.
  • CorbettCorbett Registered User Posts: 3,438 Senior Member
    And none of the students I know personally at Brown or Amherst fall into the purported categories discussed in this thread.
    They aren't exactly mythical. A quick search of the amherst.edu website turned up the following student profiles:

    Student A: I chose Amherst for a number of reasons: open curriculum (no more math!) ...

    Student B: The open curriculum and never having to take math again was a nice option as well.

    Student C: she ... had vowed that, after high school, she would "never take an art class, never take a science class, and never take a math class" [in fairness, this student apparently did start taking art classes]

    I am not going to insist that all of these students would be better off if they took linear algebra. My only contention is that if a school tends to attract students with such attitudes, then realistically, this might have a negative effect on math enrollments.
  • mpnsoftmpnsoft Registered User Posts: 81 Junior Member
    Corbett:

    You’re taking liberties by alternately spinning and ignoring my comments. I believe I made my point for anyone who chooses to read this thread. You’ve reiterated yours quite a few times. And seem to have a great deal invested in arguing with me. I’m not even disagreeing with you. I’ve simply provided my family’s experiences as a counterpoint to your generalizations. Perhaps you should write us off as an anomaly? After all, to answer the question you posed again in post #54: “It’s going just fine.” That’s my reality.

    I believe I’ve said all I care to on the subject…. So… Take care!
  • CorbettCorbett Registered User Posts: 3,438 Senior Member
    I'm sorry if I offended you, because I'm not disagreeing with you either. My comments are, as you indicate, generalizations -- rather sweeping ones in fact. And sweeping generalizations are not necessarily valid or useful for particular individuals, especially exceptional ones.

    I think I'm done too. So ... you take care as well.
  • Snowxc246Snowxc246 Registered User Posts: 13 New Member
    I think the real reason fewer people here are math/science majors is the difference in class time between math/science classes and humanities/social sciences.

    Most intro level science classes have 9 hours of class time per week, and meet 4 times per week. This contrasts with the roughly 3 hours of class time for humanities and social science classes.

    If Amherst really wants more math/science majors, they need to do something to reward people for putting in the extra time in class in science classes. 1 credit for both Chem 15 and an interpretive dance class that meets twice a week just doesn't seem fair.
  • ShesOnHerWayShesOnHerWay Registered User Posts: 757 Member
    My Amherst freshman biology major said this to the open curriculum, "Whoohoo, I never have to take another foreign language or English class!"

    The open curriculum works for everyone.
  • shawbridgeshawbridge Registered User Posts: 5,622 Senior Member
    My son, who is strong at math and science and is quite dyslexic, likes Amherst because he does not have to take a foreign language (a couple of the schools he got into had fairly onerous decision-making processes for deciding whether the requirement would be waived and would not do so until he'd become a freshman) and can organize his courses so he has one heavy reading/writing course per semester instead of three, which might be needed to meet other schools' distribution requirements. Although he doesn't plan to be a math major, I think he'll probably take math all the way through college.

    So, here's another example of the open curriculum's use that doesn't reduce math or science exposure.
  • BalletGirlBalletGirl Registered User Posts: 906 Member
    Corbett's point that schools with open curricula depress the number of students majoring in math and science, I think, is bogus. Look at the example of Grinnell. There are other factors contributing to why Amherst does not graduate more students with science majors; it is not the curriculum.

    Percent of Graduates in Math & Science

    29.8 % Swarthmore (includes engineering)
    28.9 % Grinnell (open curriculum)
    24.5 % Williams
    16.9 % Amherst (open curriculum)
    12.3 % Wellesley (only last 3 years available)

    Corbett should sample a bit more broadly before generating a set of hypotheses.;)
This discussion has been closed.