Thursday, February 7, 2008

Students Defect from Sciences at Harvard

Published On Thursday, February 07, 2008 1:31 AM
As Harvard prepares to stake its future—and at least $1 billion of its funds—on the sciences, undergraduates are fleeing the discipline in large numbers, opting instead for concentrations in the social sciences and the humanities.

According to a cross-analysis of data from the admissions department and the Harvard College facebook, there is a wide gap in the number of students who wish to pursue science at the start of their freshman year and the number of students who actually do.

Between one-third and two-thirds of students who declare their intention to study biology or engineering while matriculating have switched their concentrations away from the sciences.

For instance, 364 students in the Class of 2008 intended to concentrate in the biological sciences when they entered Harvard, but only 226 seniors are set to graduate with a degree in one of those fields.

Dropout rates are even more staggering in engineering: only 40 out of the 123 students in the Class of 2008 who said they wanted to study engineering are currently doing so.

But while Harvard has long been known for the strength of its humanities and social science offerings, the stark trend away from science appears to be more than students simply pursuing other interests.

Interviews with students who switched to the social sciences or humanities reveal that the disillusionment is driven by a number of problems in the University’s science curriculum—from large, impersonal introductory courses to the time-intensive nature of the disciplines and the highly competitive peers.


In their first semesters at Harvard, many students are daunted by introductory classes that are “bigger than [their] entire high school,” says Robert A. Lue, a professor of molecular and cellular biology who teaches the massive course Life Sciences 1a, which boasted an enrollment of 590 undergraduates last semester.

“I realized that I just didn’t like it,” says Millicent M. Younger ’10 of the course, which she took last year. “It was really weird being in such a huge class.”

Lue says the size the class makes it difficult for both students and faculty to fully engage in the subject material, especially since the lectures must take place in Sanders Theatre, a venue Lue describes as “impersonal.”

These large introductory courses, which were first offered in the fall of 2005, may account for a part of the attrition in the biological sciences. The Class of 2009 saw a drop from 382 intended concentrators to 244 currently, and the Class of 2010 saw such a drop from 360 to 231.

Lue says that professors in the life sciences are cognizant of the scale of their courses and that he and the other professors make concerted efforts to make themselves readily available to students and create more opportunities for student-faculty interaction outside of lecture.

The proliferation of large science lectures is unfortunate, says biology professor Richard M. Losick, not just because students are driven away from the concentrations, but also because large introductory courses fail to provide students with a real taste of science.

“Science is about discovery in the context of a laboratory,” Losick says. “My view is to increase the number of opportunities for students to have hands-on science experiences. [...] It reminds them why they were excited about science in the first place.”

In response to concerns over the sizes of their concentrations, the life sciences faculty pushed in the spring of 2006 for the creation of five new, smaller concentrations.

“We went from three life sciences concentrations to, at this point, around eight,” Lue says. “We want to create smaller experiences for students, to allow them to focus on their interests.”


In addition to the impersonal nature of many science courses, students also report that being a science concentrator is difficult because of the rigorous work required for the discipline and the competitive nature of other students.

Susie An ’10 came to Harvard planning to concentrate in neurobiology, but after a semester of juggling classes and the “tedium” of lab work, she realized that her academic talents were better suited to another area: art history.

“Many students have done very well in science in high school but still find that the level of the beginning science courses at Harvard is qualitatively different from what they are used to,” wrote Howard Georgi, a physics professor and the master of Leverett House, in an e-mailed statement.

Younger, a sophomore who chose English over molecular and cellular biology, cites the difficulty of scheduling “huge chunks of lab time” while “trying to have a life” outside academics.

Even Losick, the biology professor, describes the challenges of engaging students in “cookbook” labs that do not allow them to have hands-on experiences in the sciences.

Younger and An both also mentioned the intense competition in many introductory science courses.

“I felt like no one really cared about actually learning—they were just focused on beating everyone else and were worried about what the curve was going to be,” Younger says of her experience in Life Sciences 1b last spring. “I was really turned off by the whole environment.”

Professors say they are aware of the trend, and that they try to combat it in their classes.

Lue and Georgi both say they set up forums for collaboration on problem sets and studying on exams in order to decrease the competition in their classes.

But Wilfried Schmid—a mathematics professor who has taught Math 55, often described as the most difficult math class offered in the country—says there is a trade-off between the need to limit competitiveness and the desire to allow ambitious students to reach their potentials.

“There is some sort of balancing act, and I can’t say we get it perfectly,” Schmid says.


While the professors acknowledge that the attrition in their concentrations is problematic, they note that students switch away from the sciences across the country and have been doing so for years.

Students often enter college with an interest in science, Lue says, but then realize that there are fields which they had never previously encountered that appeal to them.

Lue adds that while the professors want students to study their disciplines, their introductory courses also act as a “gateway” to science that round out the educations of those who eventually focus on a discipline in the social sciences or humanities.

“The goal is to make sure that, without question, Harvard is the best place for an undergraduate to study life sciences,” Lue says. “If the numbers don’t change, but we have a sense that students...have a better sense of science, we’re more than happy.”

—Staff writer Aditi Balakrishna can be reached at

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