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UChicago's Approach to Learning

Lanie49Lanie49 Registered User Posts: 233 Junior Member
Hello! I am curious about UChicago's approach to learning- especially math and physics. I have heard that the university has a liberal arts philosophy, but I'm not sure what that means or entails. Any insight into or specific details about the math and physics departments are much appreciated! I would really like to get a sense of what the two departments are like.
BTW: What percentage of UChicago's students study math or physics? I hear it is a lot. And how many of those students are girls?

Replies to: UChicago's Approach to Learning

  • JHSJHS Registered User Posts: 18,018 Senior Member
    I'm a parent and relative of former students, only one of whom really studied math and physics (and then got a PhD in math), and that was 15+ years ago, so I'm not a good source of information on what life is like in math and physics classrooms. I can help with some of the other information, though.

    The University Registrar publishes quarterly statistical reports that are available on this page: https://registrar.uchicago.edu/page/enrollment-statistics. They are a great source of information for questions like "how many people major in X?," although they are not broken down by things like race or sex. As of the end of the 2014 academic year, there were 412 undergraduates majoring in math or applied math (overwhelmingly straight math), 204 majoring in physics, and 93 majoring in statistics. That's out of a total of 3917 students with declared majors (the vast majority of first years do not have a declared major, even if they know what they want to major in). There's doubtless some overlap -- people double majoring in math and physics isn't uncommon. But you are going to have a hard time finding another comprehensive, non-technical research university where 10% of the students are straight math majors and 5% physics majors. Harvard, by contrast, had (based on the degrees it awarded) about 5% of its undergraduates in math (2-1 applied math vs. straight), about 2% scattered across three physics-related concentrations, and another less-than-2% in statistics. Even if you count Harvard's engineers (4%), it has a smaller percentage of its students in these areas than Chicago.

    Math and physics are a central part of the culture at Chicago. Math thinking is everywhere, and the core practically requires everyone, no matter what their major, to be competent at calculus. There's really a huge community of people interested in math, which goes well beyond the math and physics majors. If you tell a good math joke, people will laugh. And because of Chicago's role in managing the Argonne and Fermi national laboratories, there is also a tremendous community of working physicists connected to the university.

    Just like the Inuit supposedly have 60-something words to describe various kinds of snow, Chicago has more options in math than most places. By my count, there are at least 10 different possible initial placements for first-years in math, ranging from remedial pre-calculus to Honors Analysis, one of those overwhelming boot-camp courses, like Harvard's Math 55, for elite students who want and can handle a near-vertical learning curve. (Unlike Math 5, however, Honors Analysis is open to second-year students who have learned their way into it via first-year courses, so people who haven't gone beyond AP calculus in high school have a chance to experience that if they want to.) A number of math courses can be taken in an "inquiry-based" format, in which teams of students are coached to discover the area for themselves through research and proofs rather than being taught.
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