A letter from a reader about Don't 'dumb-down' science, math courses

July 22, 2007:

President Tilghman's Jan. 24 President's Page did an excellent job of highlighting the crisis in science and engineering education that the United States now faces. The new two-year comprehensive introductory science curriculum at Princeton, "An Integrated, Quantitative Introduction to the Natural Sciences," is an innovative and promising approach to help Princeton achieve its goal of retaining more undergraduates in the sciences and engineering. However, we found the article in the Feb. 14 PAW on new Princeton courses offered this spring disheartening.

The three science, engineering, and mathematics offerings highlighted in the story (MOL 328: "U.S. Medical Research and Researchers: Health, Hope, Hubris";

MAT 190: "The Magic of Numbers"; and MAE 399: "Faster & Higher: The Romance and Reality of Space Flight") collectively contain no serious quantitative instruction in molecular biology, mathematics, or mechanical and aerospace engineering. While we do not disagree that all three have catchy titles and might make for an interesting conversation over an espresso, not one of the highlighted course involves any of the rigorous quantitative material that underpins those subjects. The article points out that all three courses are not intended for majors; instead they are intended to appeal to "scientifically literate students," "non-science majors," and "non-engineers." While the idea of teaching science, math, and engineering to non-majors is a laudable goal, these courses do not achieve that goal.

They merely propagate the misconception that it is acceptable to have a peripheral understanding of science, math, and engineering without engaging in the quantitative reasoning and accumulated knowledge that constitutes those subjects. It was hard not to notice that none of the article's other three courses, in English, American studies, or East Asian studies, were dumbed-down versions of the curriculum for non-majors. It concerns us greatly that non-scientists and non-engineers are being given a Princeton education with no rigorous requirements in quantitative subjects, despite the distribution requirements.

Princeton's scientists and engineers are expected to take coursework in the arts and social sciences alongside majors in those subjects. The same standard should be expected of their non-science and non-engineering classmates. It would provide for a better education and might help with grade inflation as well.

Palo Alto, Calif.

New York, N.Y.

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