Kenneth Garrett, '02, is the kind of humanities-oriented student science professors hoped to attract when they launched the Science, Math, Engineering Core (SME) four years ago. Although Garrett ultimately decided to major in international studies, he was intrigued enough by the new interdisciplinary course to sign up for SME in his freshman year--and he liked it, he really liked it.
"I knew I was never going to use quantum physics, but someday I'm going to want to tell my kid how a camera works, or why a rainbow does that," Garrett says about the mysteries he solved.
But, he adds, student sentiment appears to be split between people like himself, who love SME, and those who are more critical. "You could choose to look at it as a failure, or you could see it as an incredible effort on the part of Stanford to get it right," he says.
Data still is being collected about the pedagogical experiment that some of the University's most talented scientists and teachers launched in 1996 ("A New Spin on Science," March/April 1999). Their hypothesis at the time: if you create exciting, relevant courses, you can engage even science-shy students in technical subjects. Teach probability by playing blackjack, investigate biochemistry by testing your own blood, measure the speed of light with the help of a TV -- the scenarios for learning fundamental science concepts sounded so enticing on paper.
"We thought: if you build great courses, they will come," says Brad Osgood, a professor of electrical engineering who directs the program. "But we learned: if you build it they will come, but they won't stay." Indeed, last year alone, one SME course started with 60 students the first quarter, dropped to 48 in the winter and saw only eight students return for the final spring quarter.
Looking back, Osgood thinks enrollments likely dipped over the years because SME demands a big commitment of time--either two or three completed quarters, plus a lab, depending on the current administrative policy--in exchange for a general education requirement. But Osgood hasn't given up. This year SME professors are back in the ring, flashing new course titles--"Information: Bits to Chips, Genes to Organisms"--and team-teaching about issues related to "earth" and "light." They're hoping to win a humanities crowd by linking the study of biotechnology to evolution, for example, and then using statistical concepts to make it all relevant and compelling.
So far, 24 undergraduates have signed on to the idea. Future students, Osgood suggests, may include alumni taking adult education courses."I take very seriously the fact that we teach future senators or maybe even presidents, and other opinion leaders," says biology professor and SME supporter Virginia Walbot. "I want them to know what the facts are and how to read about science."