Colleges debate which STEM courses for all

How many credits should be required for students not bound for science careers?

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Danielle Scott wants to be a professional writer.

Given that ambition, one can debate how much she needs to learn in college about the properties of the ozone layer, the way the immune system works or the complexities involved in computer-generated imagery.

To graduate from Slippery Rock University, Ms. Scott, 20, a junior from Waterford, Erie County, must complete 120 academic credits -- the equivalent of about 40 courses in a wide array of areas. Of those courses, only two must be in science and one in math.

While there are variations, that's not unusual for nonscience majors on many college campuses.

Some would argue that those three courses -- one of which must include a science lab -- are enough for a student whose career more likely will turn on sentence structure than on calculating the square root of pi. Others might say it's inadequate, given how science and technology have become so pervasive in everyday life.

Much of public debate over science, technology, engineering and math -- disciplines collectively called STEM -- focuses on making sure there are enough talented people willing to pursue those fields as their life's work.

But on college campuses, a parallel debate with far wider implications involves what sort of instruction to offer everyone else.

Ms. Scott, an English professional writing major, said she's glad instructors on her campus encourage use of the Internet in research, something she says is important even for nonscience careers. But she's surprised her campus does not have a technology requirement, given how common technology is.

"Math and science don't intimidate me, but I know a lot of English majors who are intimidated," she said. "It's outside their comfort zone."

If some college students tend to shy away from math and science courses, to what extent should schools step in and require proficiency, and in which areas?

Few would likely quibble with sentiments like those of State System of Higher Education Chancellor John C. Cavanaugh. He says students in general ought to have at least basic exposure to things that affect them in their lives.

"Do people really understand what's meant when they say, 'There's a 30 percent chance of rain tomorrow'? Do they understand probability?" he said.

People need, for their own safety, to understand which chemicals under their kitchen sink should never be mixed, he said. And they ought to understand that an act as seemingly unrelated to science as catching a football actually turns on one's ability to grasp physics concepts such as predicting the distance a thrown object will cover in a defined number of seconds.

"There is a basic level of scientific understanding that we need just to get by in the world," he said.

Even so, interpretations differ on how many courses are needed to achieve that goal -- even among the 14 universities in the State System that enrolls nearly 113,000 students.

At those schools, the minimum required number of credits in STEM courses ranges from six at Edinboro and Lock Haven to 15 at Bloomsburg and East Stroudsburg. Three credits usually equal one course.

Among the other Western Pennsylvania campuses belonging to the system, the minimum number of STEM credits is nine at California; 12 at Clarion; 11 at Indiana; and nine at Slippery Rock.

The debate is just as lively on private campuses.

At Allegheny College, it has crept into deliberations about the school's upcoming strategic plan.

"Some people have mentioned that we should put something in there about scientific literacy. What should our students know in order to be successful in their careers, as citizens of the world and just personally?" said Linda DeMeritt, dean of the college and a professor of German.

Students there already take majors in one of three designated divisions -- humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. They must also choose a minor in a division other than the one of their majors.

That means, for example, a student enrolled in a humanities major such as English, art, or religious studies, would still take 20 to 24 credits -- five to six courses -- of science-related study if they decided to pick their minor within the natural sciences division.

Even if they don't, they still are required to pick two courses from within the natural science areas. One of those science courses must be a lab class. There is no math requirement, but many Allegheny students take at least one course.

Are those science requirements enough?

"That's a very good question. I think obviously it's impossible to teach the content that somebody needs to know to make a contribution in one of the STEM fields," Dr. DeMeritt said. "But at least they get exposed to the scientific method."

It's important for them to understand "how important science is, that it's not just a belief or an opinion, but rather a method of multiple experiments to narrow down possibilities," she said.

At Allegheny, about 30 percent of the school's 2,100 students graduate in one of the STEM disciplines.

Even when nonmajors take science and math courses, the instruction they receive is liable to be significantly different from what majors are taught.

For instance, at Slippery Rock, a course called Mathematics as a Liberal Art is offered. "It's more of an understanding of math as a discipline rather than solving math problems," said William Williams, Slippery Rock provost.

Another course, financial mathematics, is taught with business majors in mind. It includes such topics as "variable calculations on interest rates and compound interest," he said.

At Robert Morris, a course for nonmajors, Geology 1090, "Stars, Planets and the Cosmos," differs significantly in what it covers from what majors would learn.

For one thing, majors would have a lab in which they learn to use instruments such as spectrometers to analyze light coming from the stars, said associate professor Ken LaSota, who teaches Geology 1090. The majors also would work with math formulas to plot and describe the orbit of planets and stars.

Nonmajors do not have to do such things.

"That doesn't mean we don't talk about those things. The difference is we don't have to actually develop those skills and use the equipment," he said.

Even if Slippery Rock were inclined to raise the math and science requirements, how to do that is not as simple as one might think. "If you add another three credits there, where do you take it off?" Dr. Williams said. "People in the sciences and math think it's way too little. People in the arts think it's too much. We get to have these fights all the time."

Bill Schackner can be reached at or 412-263-1977.


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