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05/09/95

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Science Design Core Interim Report to Faculty Senate

STANFORD -- New data from the Registrar's Office suggest that a majority of non-science majors take difficult science classes to fulfill their distribution requirements, reported mathematics Professor Brad Osgood at the May 4 Faculty Senate meeting.

The statistics -- which run contrary to assumptions made by the Commission on Undergraduate Education -- raised new concerns among faculty members about the need to design a three- quarter science-math-engineering core curriculum for non-science majors.

In a report released last October, the commission stated that "few non-scientists are drawn to the kinds of courses required for science majors."

But a survey of 860 students who entered Stanford in 1991-92 and majored in humanities, languages and literatures, social sciences, and interdisciplinary subjects paints a much different picture.

The numbers indicate that 65 percent of the students fulfilled the mathematics distribution requirement with a calculus class; 34 percent fulfilled the technology and applied science distribution requirement by taking Computer Science 105 or 106; and 33 percent fulfilled the natural science distribution requirement with Chemistry 31, 32 or 33.

"The impression before the statistics was that there was a problem. The impression after the statistics is that the problem's quite small," said Phyllis Gardner, associate professor of molecular pharmacology.

But Osgood, chair of the science core design group, said the findings don't necessarily diminish the importance of offering students a coherent approach to science, mathematics and engineering.

"The goal is for students to have a serious encounter with the process of engineering, mathematics and science," said Osgood, who worries that students who have taken difficult math, science and computer courses to meet their distribution requirements might be missing out on "the big picture of how mixed the disciplines can be."

Osgood stressed that more statistical studies are needed to determine whether nonscience majors take additional science and mathematics courses after meeting their distribution requirements. The timing of when students decide to take these courses is also a critical factor that has to be looked at, he said.

"A quarter of statistics taken in the last quarter of one's senior year cannot be said to have informed one's quantitative thinking in one's undergraduate career," Osgood said, in a science design core interim report to the Faculty Senate.

The new data didn't quell chemistry Professor Michael Fayer's concerns that some math and science-fearing students will continue to seek the easy way out by taking "softer" distribution requirements.

One way to reach these students, Fayer said, is to make the science core mandatory for non-technical majors. "I know that it sounds like a nightmare to try to institute this for everyone, but it just seems that for pedagogical reasons, to leave both of these approaches in place doesn't make a lot of sense."

Other faculty members wondered whether there would be a high enough demand on the part of students to take a science core class, given the number of students who already are being exposed to serious science that the statistics indicate.

Many students take the tougher science courses because they are required by their departments or will help them in their postgraduate work, noted chemistry Professor John Brauman. There's a strong probability that even a "magnificently interesting" science core sequence might not attract these students, he said.

History Professor George Fredrickson suggested that the science core committee develop one science core track to begin with, rather than three tracks, as Osgood recommended. "If it's overenrolled or oversubscribed, and students really like this sort of thing," Fredrickson said, "then it proliferates."

But Osgood said it would be wrong to let the number of students who enroll in the core curriculum during its pilot years limit the number of tracks that are offered.

"I'd rather have a small success than large failure, but I would rather do it in a couple of different ways," Osgood said.

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