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Schmidt '21: Branch-out, don’t STEM-out

We don’t have all the answers when we first get to college. For most students who intend to concentrate in STEM fields, the difficulty level of academics increases exponentially from high school to college. For many first-years, this is the first time in their lives living by themselves, exposed to the alluring temptations of university life — late-night parties, constant socialization and no curfews. As a result, a student’s first year at Brown is crucial to acclimating to the University, adjusting to the rigor of its academics and creating friendships. Yet, some interested STEM or pre-med students may take four concentration-related courses per semester. Not only do these students not take advantage of the open curriculum, but they also doom themselves to a stressful, hard-hitting first year. If Brown wants to continue to be lauded as “the happiest Ivy,” it should make a mandatory policy that students take at least one non-STEM course for each of the first two semesters. This will give prospective concentrators in STEM a smoother, more sustainable high school to college transition.

One of the main purposes of Brown’s open curriculum is to “encourage individuality, experimentation, and the integration and synthesis of different disciplines.” But it is always tempting to table experimentation in favor of taking four, or even five, STEM courses — Brown is an academically rigorous and competitive learning environment, and stress culture encourages students to one-up each other to take a harder course load out of fear of getting behind. First-year STEM students who fall into this trend risk not getting enough sleep, missing opportunities to join student groups on campus and having isolated semesters focused solely on studying. Brown already has a Writing Requirement, which technically restricts the open curriculum, but few would argue for its removal. This proposal would just be an extension of the requirement and would similarly benefit Brown students.

In my first year at Brown, I took two courses per semester to fulfill my biology concentration requirements along with two courses outside of my concentration. Because of this, I not only advanced my understanding of my concentration at a comfortable pace, but I also explored other concentration opportunities, exposed myself to new modes of thought and started learning a whole new language.

The courses outside of my concentration were just as challenging, and my mind never drew weary of my requirements, which can be dry from time to time, because I received intellectual stimulation elsewhere. I remember hearing the woes and seeing firsthand the tired, bagged under eyes of my fellow biology-concentrating friends who took four or five STEM-related courses each semester during their first year. I was thankful then that I had a smoother transition into my concentration, since I was able to establish a stronger foundation for my GPA, take first-year seminars and join student groups.

Enforcing a one exploratory course rule outside of STEM would not infringe on Brown’s open curriculum; rather, it would make it stronger. The open curriculum would be completely tailored to student interest or concentration starting in their sophomore year and onward. But, under the one-class rule, students could better assess their course load for their second year, based on their academic performance from the first year. Students might even realize that a STEM concentration or the pre-med track may not be for them.

If the administration does not impose a mandatory policy for first year students, faculty advisors and Meiklejohns should always suggest at least one course outside of STEM to their advisees. The rule could even just be pushed for the first semester for incoming students. It is for the betterment of first-years who might not know their limits to balance their course load and test the waters of rigorous university courses before piling on hefty STEM classes.  Sleep, socialization, experimentation and self-discovery are just as, if not more, important than fulfilling half of your concentration requirements in your first year alone.

Rachael Schmidt ’21 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to


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