Harvard's Introductory Courses Cause Frosh to Leave Sciences
To the Editors of The Crimson:
In the Wednesday, December 6 front page story on science enrollment falling, you cite the fact that Harvard has been boosting acceptance of high school students interested in science to about 40-50 percent of the class in the past few years. Nevertheless, there are 1253 upperclassmen concentrating in sciences, 25 percent of the upperclass population. Obviously, a very large portion of these students changed their mind, and the only difference between the students who have chosen their concentrations and those entering the University, the difference that may make the decision, is a year's experience in Harvard courses.
It is no surprise that so few students concentrate in the sciences after they have gone through introductory math and science courses here. Few people could be encouraged by the mediocre learning experiences they often find in these courses. Many of the introductory classes may have star professors with excellent subject knowledge and lecturing ability, but that does not suffice to teach students effectively. Sections are a large part of the learning experience in such courses, but many courses seem to dump teaching fellows indiscriminately on their students with little concern for the outcome. If the University wants people to enjoy and become interested in the sciences, there need to be more teachers hired with quality teaching skills and an ability to communicate their excitement with the subject matter. TF's and CA's at Harvard almost always know their subject thoroughly and are talented thinkers, but a student is just as likely to have one skilled in teaching as having an incoherent one, so that it seems that teaching ability is not even a criteria in selecting section leaders.
These problems may be even worse in upper-level courses--the courses that potential science stars take in their first year. It seems that there are even fewer quality teachers and interested professors in the higher level first-year courses and that the departments may be banking on the students' own interest to keep them learning and involved in the subject. Such an attitude would not be helpful when so many potential concentrators are dropping out. Indeed, many of the people I know who are science majors are in their science in spite of their experience with the department. It is to be expected that first-year students will be discouraged if they do not have a positive experience in their class and they see little improvement in the department in higher-level courses.
Given that the University has the goal of improving science competitiveness and competency, it identified in the article two methods of accomplishing that goal: increasing high school interest and improving the college-level education, but they are wrong in thinking the solution can be found entirely in the former. The statistics in are article speak strongly: already around 40 percent of the student body has entered with a strong interest in the sciences--at a liberal arts college--and the students are talented as well. Harvard's winning the Putnam National Math Contest for the fourth straight year is just one example of the superior potential in the student body for sciences. So there is already a large number of undergraduates to work with who have a strong scientific skills and interests, but they are leaving the sciences after arriving here. That is why Harvard is mistaken in concentrating its efforts on the high school level. Campaigns to spark interest in science at an early age are useless if that interest is crushed by disgust in freshman year. Leo Clark '92 Applied Mathematics (Considering switching to Social Studies