Saturday, March 20, 2010

At Harvard, reengineering science

New focus, majors draw in students

CAMBRIDGE — Harvard University, the liberal arts bastion that tried several times in the early 20th century to unload its engineering program on MIT, is in the midst of a scientific renaissance.

The number of Harvard students declaring science and engineering majors has risen 27 percent in the past five years and now accounts for nearly a third of the university’s undergraduates.

This school year, Harvard introduced one of the country’s first undergraduate degrees in human developmental and regenerative biology, known on campus as the stem cell major. Last week, it approved a major in biomedical engineering, to debut next fall.

And over the next five years, Harvard’s three-year-old School of Engineering and Applied Sciences hopes to begin offering majors in electrical engineering, applied physics, and mechanical engineering.

The recent push is reshaping the university as it responds to the changing needs of students and to those of a modern world urgently seeking answers on climate change and genetics and in other critical fields.

“Harvard has been sort of a sleeping giant in the sciences,’’ said Jeremy Bloxham, dean of science in the university’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “Because of the great strength of the humanities and social sciences, we have been a little bit in the shadow. Perhaps we are now emerging from that shadow.’’

The new emphasis at Harvard, which has educated or employed generations of acclaimed scientists, including a number of Nobel Prize recipients in chemistry and physics, mirrors an increase being seen at other elite institutions. Yale, Princeton, and Stanford universities are also reporting a steady rise in science majors.

While Harvard says it does not aspire to be as focused on science and engineering as MIT, its neighbor down the Charles River, faculty and administrators believe the increased focus on science is helping Harvard to recruit top students. Of applicants for next year’s freshman class, 58 percent expressed their intent to major in the sciences, a 52 percent increase from 2005, according to admissions office data. Engineering alone saw a 76 percent growth in interest.

Students of modest means or who may be the first in their families to attend college are more likely to choose science and engineering over the humanities because they view the fields as more practical, some professors said. Harvard has stepped up its recruitment of such students in recent years.

Since 2006, Harvard has unveiled seven new undergraduate majors, and all of them have been in the sciences. It has also expanded its science and engineering faculty by 18 percent, to 275 professors, in the last five years.

“These are efforts by a leading liberal arts university to come to grips with the world that is changing around it,’’ said George Whitesides, a chemistry professor who graduated from Harvard in 1960. “It’s also evidence of students thinking about what they need to do to get a job in a globalized world. It requires undergraduates to work harder and those of us who teach to teach more effectively.’’

Some science professors admit that the university’s new focus and the growth in student interest has stoked some anxiety among colleagues in the humanities, given the expense of building new facilities and recruiting world-class scientists.

But, others argue that Harvard cannot afford not to further embrace the sciences, despite its current budget crunch.

“What’s changing in the world right now? For better or worse, it’s science and technology,’’ Whitesides said. “If you’re going to be a citizen in this society, you better know how all this stuff works.’’

The changes are evident beginning in students’ first year. Instead of introductory biology or chemistry courses that required freshmen to memorize endless lists of facts, Harvard now offers a broader life-science approach that integrates disciplines and shows first-year students why science matters in the real world. Through the lens of AIDS and cancer, students learn basic biology, cell biology, physiology, and population genetics.

“We said, ‘Let’s teach freshmen everything they would need to know about HIV if they were going to be president of the United States,’ ’’ said Douglas Melton, codirector of Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute.

Melton, along with molecular and cellular biology professor Robert Lue, led the undergraduate life science curriculum away from what they called the “eat your spinach’’ approach to education.

In 2005, the first year the introductory life science course replaced basic chemistry or biology offerings, freshmen enrollment shot up 40 percent to 550 students. Nearly 700 students are taking it this year.

Harvard senior Julia Rudolf, an aspiring surgeon majoring in human evolutionary biology, said the course made science more exciting because students learned about critical specifics, like how surface proteins dock to the HIV virus.

“Science was no longer about memorizing the steps of the Krebs cycle, but learning the basic mechanisms that underlie biology and chemistry and applying them to new situations,’’ Rudolf said. “It took all the roteness out of science.’’

Classes have also been revised to introduce more laboratory experiences starting in freshman year. This was made possible by the construction of a new science building in 2008 housing state-of-the-art labs and classrooms (the recent freeze on Harvard’s expansion delayed plans for a $1 billion science complex in Allston). Students in the stem cell major conduct experiments on human embryonic stem cells in class.

Engineering professors now assign more projects, such as designing a hand-powered flashlight. The introductory computer science course boasts modernized problem sets challenging students to create an E*Trade-like website that incorporates real-time stock quotes.

Harvard is also making science more accessible for those who are not science majors through a set of courses that fulfill the new general education requirement that all students study the “science of the physical universe.’’ One course on the physics of music and sound teaches the physics of vibrations and waves, but also how the human ear responds to sound.

“Science has too often been taught as a mode of exclusion, as a way of sorting people out,’’ Harvard president Drew Faust, who is a historian, said in an interview. “Science education isn’t just for people who are going to be Nobel Prize-winning scientists. We need to have an education that enables a wide range of students to be excited by the sciences. People who go into policy fields need to understand science. They can’t just say, ‘That isn’t for me.’ ’’

And through a better advising system, more students than ever before are connected with research opportunities with faculty as early as freshman year, which professors say help students decide to stick with science. Of students surveyed in 2009, nearly half in the sciences had conducted research outside of class.

Freshman Drew Simon said the new stem cell major and the research opportunities it could bring helped sway him to choose Harvard over Princeton University. His freshman adviser directed him to the right professors, and even though he had no research experience, by his second semester he landed a spot in a lab doing cardiovascular research through Massachusetts General Hospital.

“When you come into Harvard, it can be really daunting, so to be able to be hooked up with that as a freshman is really awesome,’’ Simon said.

Tracy Jan can be reached at

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