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Science students approach open curriculum with different attitudes

Students in the sciences and engineering have varied enthusiasm about taking courses outside their fields

In her four semesters at Brown,  Bettina Voelcker ’15 has taken only one class outside of the sciences — TAPS 1280T: “Contemporary Mande Dance.”

A pre-med student concentrating in neuroscience, Voelcker will have completed 12 of her 18 concentration requirements by the end of May. Though her experience is atypical for a Brown student, others like her are using their academic freedom to pursue a more directed set of goals.


One-stop shopping 

Voelcker said a lack of time in her schedule, not a lack of interest in other disciplines, has dictated her one-track focus.

“Last semester, I shopped so many humanities classes,” Voelcker said. “After the first day, I said to myself, ‘Wow, I could just spend the whole semester studying history and everything I usually don’t focus on.’ Then I shopped all my sciences classes, and I thought, ‘Forget about that previous idea. I cannot be apart from this field for too long.’”

Despite her preference for courses within the sciences, Voelcker said the content and structure of her courses is varied enough to keep her interested, balancing larger lecture classes with smaller senior seminars and a lab-based independent study.

Collin Felten ’15, a chemical engineering concentrator, will also have completed over half of his concentration requirements — 13 out of 21 — by this May. He has only ventured outside of the sciences to take a course on the crime novel, ENGL 0450D: “The Simple Art of Murder.”

Felten said finding four “wildly different” science classes in any given semester is an easy task, and any similarities between courses only reinforce the value of the given topic.

“If anything, the occasional overlap between classes makes things more interesting,” he said. “Two courses may offer totally different perspectives on a topic.”


Variety show

Others find a variety of courses more stimulating. Chemistry concentrator Colin Gould ’15 said he appreciates the break offered by courses outside of his discipline and, unlike Voelcker and Felten, opts to take one humanities course each semester.

“I think it helps to make the semester more interesting,” he said. “If you were only to take sciences, I don’t think you’d end up developing writing skills and communication skills, which can be really useful.”

Though he is a teaching assistant for CHEM 0350: “Organic Chemistry”, Gould said CLPS 0530: “Making Visual Illusions” and SOC 0270: “The Sociological Imagination” have been his favorite classes so far.

Felten said he plans to take a philosophy class in the future, “just to make sure I can still write a coherent essay as well as develop the kind of thinking that philosophy requires.” The chemical engineering concentration requires four courses in the humanities, according to the chemical engineering concentration website.

Jonah Cader ’16 said he could not envision sticking with one discipline and admits he is “decidedly undecided” when it comes to his intended concentration.

“In my experience so far, most people at Brown love trying things,” he said. “It’s funny, but I haven’t really met anyone here that has a well-defined comfort zone.”

Data from the Critical Review shows that Brown students often take courses outside of their concentration, particularly at an introductory level. Courses like NEUR 0010: “Introduction to Neuroscience”  and the engineering class ENGN 0009: “Management of Industrial and Non-Profit Organizations”  are often dominated by non-concentrators and students who are undecided about their concentrations.

It is not merely introductory classes that draw crowds — while upper-level classes typically contain fewer non-concentrators due to limited space and prerequisites, there is evidence of student interest. ENGL 1180H: “Satire and Humor Writing,” an advanced course offered for the first time this year, drew 71 students to the first class, who vied for 17 places. Only 12 of these 17 had declared a concentration in English.


Staying the course

Though a minority in their academic approach, Felten and Voelcker said they feel they are still getting the most out of their Brown education.

“Between concentration and core requirements, I would have little to no flexibility in my schedule” as an engineer at another school, Felten said. “In my eyes, by taking the one (non-required) class I find most interesting, even though it is another hard science, I am making perfect use of the (Open) Curriculum.”

“I chose Brown for its neuroscience program,” Voelcker said. “Why give up science classes that I really, really want to take for other classes that I’d just like to take?”


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