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May 3, 2001

Revising the curriculum: Faculty debate proposal to drop one natural sciences requirement

At a time when the role of science — in everyday life as well as the public policy arena — is growing, should Pitt reduce the number of natural science courses that most of its undergraduates must pass in order to graduate?

Not according to science professors who criticized the proposal during the April 24 Faculty of Arts and Sciences meeting.

Defending the proposal to reduce from three to two the number of required natural science courses for students in the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) were administrators and faculty who served on the CAS curriculum review committee.

Beginning in October 1999, the committee — chaired by CAS Associate Dean Beverly Harris-Schenz, and composed of elected and appointed faculty, plus students and advising staff — reviewed CAS's general education requirements, adopted in 1981 and last modified six years ago.

In its final report this spring, the committee recommended curricular, administrative and general changes aimed at clarifying and reducing CAS general education requirements, thereby letting students replace required courses with electives that would better meet their educational goals and more easily permit them to pursue minors, double majors and certificates.

Among the 17,168 Pittsburgh campus undergraduates in fall 1999 (the most recent term for which numbers were available), 10,022 were enrolled in CAS.

The curriculum review committee report noted that CAS students who test out of algebra (as most CAS students are expected to do), and who satisfy their foreign language requirement through Pitt courses, need 52 credits to complete their general education requirements. That's more general-ed courses than most of Pitt's peer universities require, the report stated.

Many of the 900 students and faculty who responded to a survey by the CAS curriculum review committee agreed that students get little out of the third required course in the natural sciences or the college's required course in public policy, according to the report.

Eliminating those requirements would mean that CAS students could satisfy their general education requirements in 46 credits, assuming they met their foreign language requirements by taking Pitt courses.

At last week's Faculty of Arts and Sciences meeting, professors from chemistry, physics and psychology argued against the proposal.

"I think that this proposal for change in the curriculum represents a bold step — backward," chemistry professor David H. Waldeck said. He argued that, under the proposal, students would be required to take disproportionately fewer courses in the natural sciences than in the humanities and social sciences.

"I don't care whether it's two [required] natural science courses or three or four, as long as there's an equal balance among the three areas," Waldeck said. "I think it's unconscionable to reduce the number of requirements in the sciences in the world today. The knowledge base in science is growing exponentially and has been growing exponentially for years."

Psychology professor Donald McBurney said, "I think this is the wrong time to reduce the natural science requirement from three courses to two. When you consider the issues facing our society, whether it's global warming or genetically altered food or the fact that the leading causes of preventable deaths are behavioral — these are things that have scientific solutions."

If CAS does go to a two-course natural science requirement, it should require students to take those courses in separate departments, McBurney suggested. "For us in psychology, this is a practical problem," he said. "Too many students are taking our major courses for their natural science requirements," despite the fact that these courses aren't designed for non-psychology majors.

The curriculum review committee couldn't find out which courses CAS students have been taking to fulfill their natural science requirement, said Associate Dean Harris-Schenz. She said her committee was told that Pitt's ISIS student data system is not sophisticated enough to generate such data.

Harris-Schenz said she personally has nothing against requiring a third natural science course. "My issue," she said, "is that I do not believe that the current array of courses in the natural sciences, in the main, make any reasonable attempt to direct themselves to the needs of students who are non-science majors.

"So, I challenge my colleagues in the sciences: If, in fact, it is desirable to maintain courses in order to enhance the scientific literacy of our students, you should take into consideration that the individuals who sit before you are not all physics majors, they are not all neuroscience or bio majors, and therefore they demand of you a different attitude about constructing courses that are appropriate" for non-science majors.

She cited CAS's interdisciplinary science course as an example of a course that is academically sound and useful to science majors and non-science majors alike.

Faculty from physics and astronomy countered that their unit offers such general interest courses as physics and science fiction, physics and music, and astronomy courses that appeal to non-majors.

Lewis Jacobson, of biological sciences, said eliminating the third required course in the natural sciences would discourage non-science majors from taking laboratory-based courses. That, he said, would be like allowing a student to take a foreign cultures course to meet CAS's foreign language requirement.

"In the natural sciences, there is something about doing the science, with full intellectual rigor, that is analogous to having to learn to speak and understand a language. You cannot substitute for that by talking about the 'culture of science.' It is not the same thing," Jacobson said.

English professor Philip Smith protested that the CAS curriculum review committee presented no intellectual arguments for eliminating the required third course in the natural sciences. Rather, he said, the committee seemed to base its recommendation on survey results indicating that students and faculty didn't see much value in the courses.

Smith objected to basing the curriculum on a "consumer ethic" of allowing students to decide which courses they should be required to take.

"I think it is our responsibility [as faculty] to say what they should have," Smith said.

The CAS Council on March 13 endorsed the curriculum review committee's report, although some council members did express concerns about reducing the natural science requirement.

The committee now will consider comments from last week's Faculty of Arts and Sciences meeting, and arts and sciences Dean N. John Cooper will solicit position papers from individuals and groups of faculty who want to comment in detail. Cooper said position papers, and any curriculum review committee responses, will be posted this summer on the arts and sciences web site: Faculty will have another chance to discuss curriculum changes at the fall Faculty of Arts and Sciences meeting, Cooper said.

The dean expressed disappointment that fewer than 80 faculty (out of 500-plus full-time arts and sciences faculty) attended the meeting in 1K56 Posvar Hall. Cooper said that, given the importance of the CAS curriculum and the strong opinions professors have expressed about it, he had considered scheduling the meeting in the 600-seat Bellefield Hall auditorium.

A professor pointed out that "a few other things were going on" last week. Final exams, for example.

"There are always 'other things going on,'" Cooper said.

— Bruce Steele

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