Yale College Curriculum Cultivates Skills in Science

Mary Attardo ’11 is a freshman from Staten Island, a current resident of Timothy Dwight College, and a student in Professor Jeffrey Kenney’s class, Astronomy 120—Galaxies and the Universe.

When Mary Attardo ’11, a freshman from Staten Island, New York, decided to come to Yale, she was looking for a challenge. Considering a future in law, she was intrigued by Yale’s reputation as a place to explore a broad spectrum of ideas. This semester was all that she hoped for.

“I didn’t know anything about astronomy,” she said. “But my advisor and I talked about the importance of gaining different perspectives and understanding how other people think.” Astronomy 120: Galaxies and the Universe, offered exactly that opportunity. Led by Professor Jeffrey Kenney, students in the class spend fifteen weeks learning about stars and stellar evolution, super-massive black holes, and the structure and evolution of the Milky Way and other galaxies. The course is demanding, compelling, and one of a growing number of science offerings designed for Yale’s non-science majors.

New requirements for a changing world

Like many of her classmates, Mary is taking Astronomy 120 to meet Yale’s new distributional requirements, intended to ensure that all students, regardless of major, gain strength in the foundational skills of science and quantitative reasoning.

Yale has always provided robust introductory science courses for pre-med students and rising science majors. But classes like Astronomy 120—science for the non-scientist—fill a different need. These classes offer non-science majors an opportunity to study science in a serious way, build skills in the discipline, and apply those skills to a fascinating subject.

This type of course was first envisioned in the 2003 report of the Committee for Yale College Education (CYCE) as a way to prepare Yale students for a world in which science plays a growing role. Since then, the faculty has worked to build a substantial body of fundamentally new science offerings. This semester alone, students could choose from among six different courses, including Frontiers and Controversies in Astrophysics, Frontiers of Biomedical Engineering, and Chemistry, Energy, and the Environment. Each course offers a unique exposure to a different science-related field.

Science for non-scientists is just one focus of the educational programs now being funded through the Yale Tomorrow campaign. Other initiatives include a new Science Teaching Center, new course creation, improved programs for undergraduate science research, an expanded math- and science-tutoring program, and more.

Making the Most of the Yale Experience

For Mary, Astronomy 120 has become one of her three favorite classes, along with Intro to Psychology and Reading & Writing the Modern Essay. “Professor Kenney showed us how small we were compared to the rest of the universe,” she explained. “It was mind-blowing.”

Still considering law school, Mary is largely undecided about what lies ahead after graduation. Currently, she is enjoying the breadth of scholarship available at Yale, relishing the flexibility of a curriculum that dictates what kinds of things students must learn while leaving them free to choose their own course of study. “In high school you just take what they tell you to take,” Mary said. “But here there are so many opportunities.”

(February 27, 2008)

February 27, 2008