Science & Research

Students seek to balance professional goals, liberal learning

Many students find their academic interests shifting elsewhere over time, often pointing to ‘weeder’ introductory science courses as a deterrent

By
Science Staff Writer
Thursday, April 4, 2013

Students often decide not to further pursue the pre-med track after receiving grades below their expectations in classes like CHEM 0350: “Organic Chemistry.”

This article is part of the series STEM 0010

The Open Curriculum and nearly two-year window for students to declare a concentration give Brown students the freedom to change their minds about their academic interests — including students who come to Brown considering concentrating in engineering or pursuing the pre-medical school track. The decision to study science depends on many factors and is often influenced in part by students’ experiences in introductory science courses.

Some students said their courses sorted out students from engineering or the pre-med track, while others said they found different academic interests to explore.

 

Moving ‘into the unknown’

Many Brown students said they view certain introductory science courses as “weeder” courses — courses that filter students out of a concentration or an academic track based on whether they can succeed in that class. For example, many students said they consider CHEM 0350: “Organic Chemistry” a “weeder” course.

“The mindset that the school creates when entering an orgo class is like, ‘Your semester is going to be hell — your life is going to be hell — if you’re in orgo,” said Frances Brittingham ’14, who is currently pursuing the pre-med track.

Eleanor Siden ’15 started out on the pre-med track but is now planning on concentrating in comparative literature. Looking back on her experience in CHEM 0350, she said, “It felt like a filter course, and I was disappointed with myself for not going to the second level (of organic chemistry), even though I didn’t want to, just because I didn’t want to be one of those people who was filtered out.”

Similarly, many engineering students struggle with ENGN 0510: “Electricity and Magnetism,” a course that follows the two introductory engineering courses.

Selena Buzinky ’15 said she enjoyed physics in high school and pursued engineering in her first two semesters at Brown. But while taking ENGN 0510 in her third semester, she had a change of heart.

“It was taught really well. It’s just that I hated the content, and it was so hard,” Buzinky said. “I realized that I just wasn’t into the intense physics that engineering requires.”

While many students said they view these courses as “weeder” courses, faculty members argued that they do not try to filter students out of their fields of interest. Both CHEM 0350 and ENGN 0510 challenge students to think in new ways and work with content they have never encountered before, faculty members said.

“Organic chemistry is a very difficult discipline, I think, when people are first exposed to it,” said Sarah Taylor, instruction coordinator and science learning specialist at the Science Center. “It’s unlike any material they’ve ever seen. People are learning a new language. They have to think three dimensionally, which people have often never had to do.”

Kenneth Breuer ’82 P’14 P’16, professor of engineering and senior associate dean of engineering for academic programs, described ENGN 0510 as the course where students “really move into the unknown.”

“There’s a time when you break out of what you’ve been doing and break into — and you sort of work your way into — a new area,” Breuer said. “I think there’s growing pains that go with that course.”

Some of the students who struggled with CHEM 0350 and ENGN 0510 still said they valued the new ways of thinking taught in these courses.

“It was like some other part of your brain opens up, which is really cool,” Siden said.

 

The freedom to change your mind

“Sometimes people come to university with a preconceived notion of what it is that they ought to do, and they discover that this is not what they ultimately wanted to do,” said Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron.  “They discover it for a variety of reasons.”

Many students said they enroll in the first course of the engineering sequence, ENGN 0030: “Introduction to Engineering,” because they excelled in their science and math classes in high school. ENGN 0030 has about 220 students enrolled every year, Breuer said. A year later, only 120 to 150 students enroll in ENGN 0510, the third course in the engineering sequence, Breuer said.

“I knew I wanted to be in the sciences, so a natural starting point would probably be engineering,” said Matteo Ziff ’14, who studied engineering for three semesters before switching to applied math. During that time, he realized that his interests extended beyond the engineering track, he said.

“I like doing political science, but I also like doing engineering-type things. With (applied math) I can actually do that. And that’s a lot more satisfying than following one track,” Ziff said.

Breuer said students’ decisions to not pursue engineering do not necessarily reflect negatively on the program.

“People are experimenting with different things,” Breuer said. “Just because someone leaves engineering, that’s not really attrition — they just changed their mind. Attrition has this negative connotation, which I think is unfair.”

Allan Bower, professor of engineering, who teaches ENGN 0040: “Dynamics and Vibrations,” the second course in the engineering sequence, said retention is not as important as helping students pursue their academic interests..

“We’re beaten up over retention to some extent, but really the purpose here isn’t to be producing engineers. It’s to help students find what they really want to do,” Bower said.

Like the rest of their peers, students in the engineering sequence declare their concentration near the end of their sophomore year. At other schools, engineers must declare their focus within engineering in their first year, Breuer said. But at Brown, all potential engineering concentrators pursue a common core of engineering courses for two years.

That common core is “in synergy with the Open Curriculum,” Breuer said, adding that it “fits in well with the structure of the University” because it gives concentrators the freedom to explore different kinds of engineering before they specialize.

For pre-med students, “foundational science courses are very important, because they inform the choice of a student to pursue a concentration or health profession,” said George Vassilev, director of pre-professional advising and assistant dean of the College. Before applying to health profession schools, students must complete about 12 pre-med requirement classes in addition to concentration requirements.

“There’s a pressure to start those requirements from day one,” said Christine Moon ’13.5, a pre-med student. As a Health Careers Peer Advisor, she said she has noticed that students start to reflect on their decision to be pre-med as they work their way through the requirements.

“I have thought for a long time that I want to be a doctor, but when I came to Brown I had all these options open,” Brittingham said. “I don’t believe that the reason you come to Brown is to take the pre-med courses and get out and go to med school. Brown has an open curriculum for a reason — the idea is to explore things that you haven’t had an opportunity to explore before.”

Pre-med students said they struggle with the relevance of their courses to their interest in the health profession.

“A lot of the problems I have with pre-med here is that it’s not pre-medicine. It’s pre-pure chem, or pre-pure math or pre-pure physics,” said Jake Moffett ’15, who used to be on the pre-med track. “Because I didn’t know what medicine was, it just seemed too risky.”

“It’s hard to judge whether you’d like med school or medicine based on your physics or chemistry class,” Moon said.

 

All about the grades?

For many students, including potential engineering concentrators, Brown may be the first school where they do not immediately excel at a subject.

“The people that get discouraged are the people that don’t get the grades they’re used to getting, and it’s usually the people at the top of the B range,” Bower said. “They take that as a reflection that they’re just not able to perform at the level they think is necessary for success.”

But unlike in high school, students’ grades may not be the best measures of success.

During his three semesters of engineering, Ziff said he learned that “it’s not really about the grades anymore. It’s just more about whether you know the material.”

ENGN 0030 is intended to “introduce students gently how to do college courses,” said Janet Blume, associate professor of engineering and associate dean of the faculty.

“One of the hardest lessons for students to learn is: Students got a place at Brown because they were used to excelling,” Taylor said. “A lot of students here weren’t experienced in how to cope with obstacles and setbacks, simply because it’s one of the first times they’ve ever been challenged in this way.”

But pre-med students said grades appear to be a driving force for them, creating a competitive atmosphere in courses like CHEM 0350.

Pre-med students who are certain they want to apply to medical school approach their pre-med classes with the sole goal of receiving an A in the course, Brittingham said.

While students’ academic performance is a critical part of their application to medical school, one grade will not make or break their chances of admission, Vassilev said.

“It’s important to know that it’s a process, and if things don’t go perfectly, they can improve,” Vassilev said.

 

A double-edged sword

In the fall of 2014, students in the Program for Liberal Medical Education will be able to take a two-course sequence that will satisfy physics and chemistry requirements while emphasizing the subjects’ relation to health professions.

Taylor expressed concern about the new courses designed for PLME students. Even if students are taught the content, they may not receive the same analytical training as students enrolled in the more traditional classes, Taylor said.

“I cannot emphasize enough how much value added there is from students being trained in disciplines,” Taylor said. “To not give those their fair place, I think, is actually criminal,” Taylor said.

Students expressed mixed feelings about making these courses available to all pre-med students. Moffett said courses with both concentrators and non-concentrators are not productive.

“It’s just awkward if I’m in (CHEM 0330) and I’m sitting next to someone who’s there to study chemistry, and I’m there trying to pass the class,” he said. “That’s not helping either of us. It makes me feel stupid, and it makes them feel like they’re wasting their time.”

But Wes Durand ’14, who is pursuing the pre-med track, raised concerns that courses designed specifically for pre-meds could disadvantage students once they get to medical school.

Students are expected to know the fundamentals before they arrive at medical school, Durand said, and “if you have an incomplete understanding from undergrad … that’s not beneficial.”

David Neumeyer, dean of admission at Tufts University School of Medicine, said courses specifically designed for pre-meds could be a double-edged sword. From the perspective of med school admissions, he said he has no objection to applicants who took courses geared for pre-meds. But he suggested that university administrators may have some concerns because not all pre-med students ultimately enroll in health profession schools.

“As an educational environment, I think it’s best to train your students in a more general sense,” Neumeyer said. “You don’t want to shortchange your students to train them specifically in medicine, when a large percentage of them don’t get into med school.”

The new PLME courses are just one example of the curricular innovations being implemented by the University. Tomorrow’s story will investigate in greater depth the University’s curricular innovation efforts for science education.

 

– Additional reporting by Kate Nussenbaum

One Comment

  1. Toby Cohen '09, MD/PhD Student says:

    It’s interesting to have pre-med students giving such authoritative quotes about what medical school is or isn’t and what medical schools are looking for. Was Dean Simmons asked to comment at all? The problems with the pre-med curriculum that students like Moon or Moffett cite are nothing unique to Brown, and are indeed the reason why at least the school I attend, is creating a program to change it: http://icahn.mssm.edu/education/medical-education/programs/flexmed

    At the very least, I can say that while Brown’s organic chemistry sequence is incredibly difficult, it makes the organic chemistry on the MCAT a cakewalk (and this is coming from a student with a C in CH35 and a B in CH36). Additionally, speaking from experience, other science classes like BI28, BI30, BI50, BI53, BI80, and BI188 prepare students well for medical school.

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