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not just a test anymore


By Ariel R. Frank

Students and Faculty criticized many recommendations of the Core Review Committee when it released its working paper in February. The only part of the paper no one refuted was the proposal to add a quantitative reasoning field to the Core.

As a result, it will probably become official policy, either at the second Faculty meeting in May, or next fall.

The proposal replaces the QRR test with a quantitative field in the Core, but has a second provision that would not increase the overall number of requirements.

Students, Faculty and alumni agree that the quantitative reasoning requirement currently mandatory for all first-years, the QRR test, does not demand a high enough level of knowledge of statistics.

They say undergraduates need to develop strong quantitative skills because computers, polls, studies and statistics are everywhere in today's world.

William H. Bossert '59, Arnold professor of science, says he is opposed to the Core in general but believes that a quantitative component is important in any curriculum.

"Whatever plan of general education we have should include some sort of quantitative reasoning requirement," he says. "The current one doesn't work. It's a shame."

According to Pforzheimer University Professor Sidney Verba '53, who chairs the Core Review Committee, he will bring legislation, including a quantitative reasoning recommendation, for a discussion before the full Faculty on May 6.

"My sense is that there's a fairly positive reaction to [QRR changes], among the Faculty and among students as well," he says. "There are a lot of controversial issues about our report, but among the students who have been concerned about parts of it, they seem to be OK with the QRR."

Sarah K. Hurwitz '99, a member of the Undergraduate Council, criticized the working paper on the Core because it rejects allowing students to fulfill some Core requirements with department courses.

She co-authored a report on undergraduate requirements that recommended adding a quantitative requirement to the Core.

Hurwitz says she has not met anyone who disagrees with the QRR proposal. Although some students might not look forward to taking a math course, they recognize the necessity of developing quantitative skills, she adds.

"Students are pretty much okay with it," Hurwitz says. "I don't think people are thrilled, but they kind of accept that it's important. Things like departmental bypasses are really going to be the controversial issue."

And Gary J. Feldman, chair of the physics department and Baird professor of science, says that the QRR will keep the balance among Core fields.

"Three of the 11 fields are in natural sciences, so it doesn't upset the distribution," he says of the new proposal.

The Logistics

In its working paper, the Core Review Committee proposes that a quantitative reasoning area be added to the Core only when there are "a sufficient number of courses available to provide real choice for students with different levels of skill."

It also states that there must be "enough flexibility in the whole system of requirements to increase the number of areas [from 10 to 11] while moderating the demands on student time."

Verba says he does not want to increase the number of required courses.

"Our committee felt students have too many requirements," he says. "It would be unfortunate to add a quantitative requirement without changing anything else."

Hurwitz agrees with the Core Review Committee that there must be a wide range of courses available to fulfill the requirement.

She says she would like existing departmental classes and new Core classes in computer science, game theory and statistics count.

"I'd be really disappointed if it turned out to be just a few statistics classes counting," Hurwitz says. "We really need a lot of classes to be able to count for this."

In addition, Hurwitz says students with substantial quantitative ability should be able to take more advanced departmental courses to fulfill the requirement.

The student report on the Core suggests two possible ways to create a quantitative requirement. The first is to set a minimum level of proficiency that every student must achieve. The second is to require every under-graduate to take a quantitative course at any level, regardless of previous exposure.

Even if the QRR change becomes policy in May, the class of 2001 will still have to take the QRR test, according to Verba, because there are too many uncertainties that need to be resolved.

The Faculty would have to form a committee to design the guidelines for the requirement and propose courses.

"I wouldn't think there would be enough available by this coming fall," Verba says. "It's just too short a time."

Possible Courses

The working paper contains a list of 10 types of courses which might be offered in quantitative reasoning.

It includes courses on human demography, mathematical modeling strategic behavior and statistics in public policy.

For example, the outline for a course on methods of behavioral research states, "the goal will be to facilitate a critical evaluation of claims to truth made by behavioral scientists. Questions range from methods of measuring intelligence and personality to the reliability of test construction."

At a meeting in January, several Faculty members submitted outlines for courses that could be offered in a quantitative field of the Core.

Eric S. Maskin '72, professor of economics, proposed a course in strategic behavior.

He says the goal of the class would be to introduce game theory to students in a way that would help them apply it to everyday situations.

Game theory is a tool that economists, mathematicians and political scientists use to analyze strategic situations, in which several participants have conflicting objectives and their actions affect the well-being of the other parties.

According to Maskin, the course might study topics such as the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

"There are some courses in game theory for undergraduates in the economics department," he says. "But the emphasis in all these courses in more on the theory than its application to everyday events."

George B. Field, Wilson professor of applied astronomy, said he likes the list of proposed QRR courses.

"I find it very attractive that the proposed courses would be very closely tied to various applications, including humanities and social sciences, that will help to motivate students to learn the methods of quantitative reasoning," he says.

Maskin says departmental courses presume that students have a certain preliminary level of quantitative knowledge.

"The course that I was describing would assume nothing much more than high school algebra, so part of the course would be developing some quantitative skills," he says.

Maskin, who has never taught a Core class, says he might be interested in teaching such a course should the quantitative requirement be instituted.

"It's fun and stimulating to be able to try out ideas that will be new and fresh to bright, young undergraduates," he says. "You have the privilege of exposing them to a body of knowledge that they haven't encountered before."

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