Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Chosing to major in science

Geeky Mom has an interesting series of posts about why ended up becoming a writer instead of a scientist, despite her early interest in science and math. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

It got me thinking about how a college freshman who is unsure of what she wants to major in probably has a much easier time dabbling in social science and humanities courses than in science. At least in my own undergraduate experience, the introductory courses that science majors were required to take were huge, so students received very little individual attention. On top of that, there were long laboratory sections at least once a week. It's very hard to imagine anyone taking introductory chemistry out of curiosity or for "fun". In contrast, even though I was a science major I took a bunch of humanities and social science courses (German, history, cultural anthropology, etc.) just because I found them interesting.

There were science classes for non-science majors, of course, but they were essentially watered-down versions of the real thing. You couldn't take the special "physics for poets" course and use it to fulfill the requirements of a physics major, but I took history classes along with the history majors. Is this a sign of a general deficiency in the teaching of science and math at American high schools? Is there something inherently more difficult about learning the sciences? Or is it unrealistic to think that college students should be capable of taking introductory classes in every department, be it English or Biology?

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5 comments:

Jim said...

Interesting. In my case the Chem101 class was huge and had a long lab, but as an engineering major I had to take it. That wasn't a problem as I loved it. After that I went on to take 4 more chem classes that were not required (and all had long labs) just because the content was so fascinating. But I also took a lot of non-required philosophy courses too.

If that first Chem class wasn't a requirement, would I have made the time in my schedule to take it, along with that 3 hour lab? I don't know. I'd like to think so, but maybe not.

Anonymous said...

I knew from high school that I wanted to major in a hard science. I know that many people change majors in college, but is high school the time to encourage more people to be interested in sciences? What percentage of college students change their major?
I minored in both an additional though related hard science and also in a humanities field. The minor in the other hard science was harder as there was a series of courses that was required in a certain order. The humanities field minor simply had a list of courses that could be taken in any order. This make scheduling a the classes for a humanities degree much easier.

ERV said...

This is even the case at liberal arts schools. My history courses were required for the history majors, music for the music majors, philosophy for the philosophy majors... But while non-science majors could take the 'hard' science courses for requirement credit-- no one did.

Btw-- TAG! 8 random things about yourself, or women in science if you like :)

Peggy said...

Jim: I didn't realize engineers had to take chemistry too. Honestly, I've never heard of anyone taking chem lab courses just for fun. I'm surprised you didn't become a chemist :-)

anon: I agree that high school is the time when people should be encouraged in the sciences. But still, there are many people who like science and humanities too. I knew several people in undergrad that switched out of science (the biggest leap was chem engineering to theology!), but none who switched into science. It is probably at least in part, as you say, partially because intro science courses need to be taken in a particular order. I think it's also because many people are poorly prepared in science in high school, so the intro courses seem intimidating and overwhelming.

Peggy said...

erv: thanks for the tag - I think.