A University Whistleblower

So I realize I am not an actual whistleblower. I just liked how dramatic the title of this post sounded. But I was rather incensed at the falsehoods in this article about science students at my alma mater and could not resist writing something about it.

The article can be found here and I would highly suggest reading it before reading this post, as this post will not make much sense without it. The article is about science undergraduates at my university and I am qualified to speak on this subject because I myself was a science student during my freshman year. I intended to major in chemistry back then. However, I discovered two things after first semester: first, I missed history so much and second, the chemistry department was incredibly hard to work with and was more interested in researching than teaching a bunch of undergraduates.

In the chemistry department, incoming students signed up for the introductory course are required to take an online diagnostic exam, developed by Frey, that helps determine the type of support they will need to succeed when the semester kicks off in August. Course instructors and advisers use the results to recommend which of the myriad support programs are appropriate. So, a student with a high degree of proficiency might be advised to participate in the department’s highly successful peer-led team-learning (PLTL) groups, while a less prepared student would be encouraged to sign up for smaller peermentoring groups, in addition to participating in PLTL. All students attend lectures and recitation sessions. With nearly 800 students in three sections of General Chemistry, it’s enormously helpful to both student and instructor to have this strategy worked out even before the first lecture begins – and long before trouble arises. The upshot is that students in this class, once feared as the hardest on campus, are now succeeding, with up to 75 percent of them earning A’s or B’s.

There is so much wrong with this paragraph that I don’t even know where to start. I switched into the school of Arts & Sciences after being accepted (once I realized that I did not wish to pursue a career in my chosen course of study) and I never took the placement exam, as I did not receive the email instructing incoming students to do so. I realize this is not the chemistry department’s fault; however, when I found out about the exam during orientation week and offered to take it, I was not allowed to. As a result, I was not allowed to participate in the PLTL groups.

As for the “smaller peermentoring groups” mentioned, I have no idea what this article is talking about. There were no such groups when I was taking chemistry, and as far as I know there were none when I graduated either.

And as for the assertion that seventy-five percent of the students in the class earn A’s and B’s, that is ridiculous. Yes, it is true, but it only happens because of the very, very generous curve. Very few students actually earned A’s on their exams (as in, ninety percent or above). My friend consistently scored in the low eighties, yet, due to the curve, her transcript says that she received an A in the class.

New undergraduates are often shocked by the expectations of college-level academics, and nowhere is that more pronounced than in the sciences. “A college-level chemistry course is very different than anything first-year students have taken in high school, even if they’ve taken AP Chemistry,” says Bill Buhro, the George E. Pake Professor and chair of the chemistry department. “It’s about understanding concepts and problemsolving, not memorization. We teach them to look at a problem upside-down, inside-out and backward.” Whether or not a student can make this conceptual leap in chemistry class is a strong predictor of his or her ability to do so in any class.

This is just a lie. Most of my first-semester chemistry classes consisted of the professor deriving problems using concepts from calculus-based physics (which I have never taken, and which is not listed as a prerequisite for the class) and solving problems. Many people ended up memorizing their way through the class (I include myself in this category). At the end of the semester, I realized I had not really learned anything at all. Second semester was a different story: it was a bit boring, but I actually did learn. And chemistry lab (which is counted as a separate class, for some reason) was actually kind of fun and pretty well-taught.

The rest of the article is about introductory physics, which I thankfully did not have to take and therefore unqualified to write about.

Admittedly, even if general chemistry had been a well-taught course at my university, I probably would have defected from the sciences (I just a book about spies in the Cold War, so forgive the spy-like language!) simply because I have realized I do not want to have a career in the sciences. What annoyed me about the article was how my university thinks intro-level chemistry is so great and how the sciences are taught so well. Note: they’re not. There are some very nice professors in the chemistry department (one of whom taught both sections of chemistry second semester), but during first semester, both sections (taught by two different professors) were taught by professors who made it abundantly clear that they would much rather have been researching than teaching a bunch of foolish undergrads. That, coupled with the generous curve in all the science classes (not just chemistry), left me with a bad taste in my mouth, as the saying goes. Had I known how little I would learn in first semester chemistry, I probably would have satisfied my science requirement with a different class.

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