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New CUNY Curriculum Squeezes Science

30 January 2012 12:42 pm
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CUNY/The City University of New York

Fiterman Hall, a new classroom and lab complex, will be part of CUNY's Borough of Manhattan Community College.

To succeed, any effort to improve U.S. undergraduate science instruction and attract more minorities into the field must extend beyond the tiny fraction of students educated at the country's elite colleges. In other words, those reforms also need to be embraced by institutions like The City University of New York (CUNY), which serves more than 400,000 students, many from low-income and minority families. But a new core curriculum at CUNY takes a big step in the wrong direction, say some science faculty members, by making it less likely that its graduates will be exposed to hands-on laboratory coursework.

"President Obama is saying that our students need to take more science, and CUNY is saying that it's not necessary," says David Lieberman, chair of the physics department at CUNY's Queensborough Community College and one of several faculty members unhappy about the changes. "It's absurd."

CUNY is the quintessential urban university. A confederation of seven community colleges and 11 senior colleges scattered across all five boroughs, CUNY educates 155,000 full-time students. In addition, up to 270,000 students are taking one or more courses outside a formal degree program.

Over the years, the low tuition and convenient locations of CUNY schools like City College of New York and Hunter College have provided a launching pad for the careers of many world-class scientists. But many students come to CUNY barely ready for college, and without a clear academic path in mind. As a result, many of them will attend more than one college in the system—either because they started at a community college and transferred to a senior college, or because they changed majors.

Those students face what CUNY's chancellor, Matthew Goldstein, calls a "mind-numbing patchwork of rules" governing what entry-level courses will be accepted for transfer credit. Frustrated by those rules, many students give up and drop out. Even those who persevere often wind up having to spend more money and take longer than anticipated to earn a degree.

CUNY officials say the new approach, dubbed the Pathways Initiative, addresses these issues. It also aims to support efforts by the Obama Administration to hold down the cost of higher education and shorten the time to graduation as part of a broader effort to get more people to attend college. "We want to allow students to move more efficiently without repeating courses," says Alexandra Logue, executive vice chancellor at CUNY, who is overseeing implementation of the initiative.

The new Common Core, set to go into effect in September 2013, will require students to take 10 three-credit courses in several areas; senior colleges can require up to 12 additional entry-level credits in additional or related fields. That's still a lot, says Logue, but it's a big improvement over existing rules at individual CUNY colleges. "Some of the senior colleges have a [general education] curriculum that takes up more than half of the total number of credits needed to graduate," she says. "After taking 60 credits and the courses required for their major, they have room for very little else."

The new curriculum will give students the chance to take more upper-level courses, she says, because fewer credits will be consumed by the entry-level classes. In addition, the plan will help students' pocketbooks: Most CUNY students come from families earning less than $20,000 a year and receive financial aid, she says, but that aid can't be used to pay for "excess credit," in other words, classes that don't count toward graduation.

Science faculty members agree that CUNY's transfer policy needs to be reworked. But they say the Common Core will weaken what nonscience majors—the vast majority of CUNY students—learn about the subject. For one thing, they say, the core requires only one traditional science course. (A second course, called the Scientific World, is defined in such an open-ended way that it could be taught by faculty outside of the natural sciences.) In addition, Logue has decreed that each three-credit course can meet for only 3 hours a week—which faculty say will make it impossible to conduct lab work. In contrast, they note, most senior colleges now require students to take two, 4-hour credit courses in science, and that four-credit course often meets for 6 hours a week in some combination of lectures and lab work.

"Most community colleges in New York [state] require a four-credit lab science course for their students to earn an associate degree," says Lieberman. "So once the Common Core is implemented, Suffolk Community College [in Long Island] will have a higher science requirement for its nonscience majors than CUNY does for a bachelor's degree."

The initial draft of the Common Core included nine courses, including a four-credit lab science requirement. But Logue says there was a lot of pressure to add a 10th course, which meant trimming all the courses to three credits. It's a compromise, she admits. "Pretty much every discipline is unhappy," she says. "Everybody thinks that their discipline deserves more than 3 hours."

Senior colleges are free to design their own courses within the Common Core, Logue points out, although they can't require more than 3 hours to earn a general education credit. And she says there are some creative proposals bubbling up.

At CUNY's Baruch College, for example, the chair of the natural science department has floated the idea of an all-lab course as part of the core. Each course would be built around "a problem-based challenge," John Wahlert explained in a memo earlier this month to Logue, with students carrying out experiments to test particular hypotheses and then discussing the results and their meaning.

"Thinking back to my education in the 1960s, I remember almost nothing from lectures," says Walhert. "It's the hands-on learning that you carry into the future." He says he also welcomes the challenge of shaking up the general education requirements. "It's kind of exciting. It's so easy to do the same things over and over."

But Manfred Philipp, a biochemistry professor at Lehman College and former head of the university's faculty senate, derides the all-lab, no lecture approach. "Science isn't a machine-shop class," he scoffs. "How can you offer a course without presenting students with the theory behind what they are doing?" Students who take the class won't be able to get credit for it if they transfer to another university because "nobody else is doing anything like that," says Philipp. And he and Lieberman say that tweaking one science class to fit the new Common Core doesn't change the fact that most students will need to take less science to graduate. "It's a panic-button reaction," says Philipp.

Baruch's Wahlert agrees that an all-lab course, which he plans to discuss at a department meeting this week, doesn't solve the bigger problem. And he says he's begun to rethink the idea. "The best outcome for us at Baruch would be for Pathways to go away," Wahlert says. "If transfer is a problem, let the science faculties of CUNY together agree on what courses transfer."

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