Columbian sees boom in math, science majors

by Mary Ellen Mcintire

Media Credit: Nick Rice | Graphic Assistant

Correction appended

The number of undergraduate science and math majors in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences shot up 25 percent in the last four years, according to newly released data.

The surge shows that students are buying into the University’s rapid build-up in technical fields, as it invests $275 million in the Science and Engineering Hall and millions more into new science faculty and research money to join the ranks of top research institutions.

“The growth in [science, technology, engineering and math] majors is consistent with the University’s goal – and the push at the national level for greater emphasis on STEM education – to build the science and engineering enterprise,” Columbian College dean Peg Barratt said.

Some departments have expanded after being some of the college’s smallest four years ago. For example, the number of biological anthropology majors grew from 12 to 34, and math majors have shot up from 10 to 28, along with smaller gains in larger programs like biology and physics. The data does not count double majors in its total.

The Columbian College has added about 10 new faculty positions overall in the last three years. Barratt refused to say how many of those positions were in science and math, and how many were in social sciences, arts and humanities.

Reza Modarres, head of the statistics department, said it has hired two new faculty members and is looking to bring on four more this year. Likewise, Yongwu Rong, head of the math department, said his department has hired adjunct faculty to cover additional teaching needs.

Both Modarres and Rong said class sizes have increased over the past few years, an issue they said they've done their best to keep under control.

“We have been stretched quite a bit,” Modarres said. “We hope it continues – but at a rate that we can handle.”

Barratt said the economy and workforce demands may also influence students’ majors. The college has also doubled the number of Chinese students since 2008, with many favoring technical fields.

Over the same period, which increased the college’s enrollment by only 0.5 percent overall, some social science and humanities programs saw sharp declines, potentially putting those programs’ budgets and hiring priorities at risk.

The number of art history majors fell from 46 to 28, while Hispanic languages and literature dwindled from 24 to four students.

But Barratt remained mum on what the shift in science and math majors meant for other fields.

She said she hasn’t needed to tighten resources for humanities and social sciences by slowing down hiring or cutting funding because the school’s overall budget has grown and the college has “a bigger pie, so nobody’s hungry.” She declined to say by how much the budget has increased.

She also refused to say how many professor positions the school had added or taken away in social sciences or humanities saying she did not think it was relevant.

While hiring budgets are set by the provost’s office, deans decide which departmental faculty requests to pitch to Rice Hall.

Barratt said the college is not trying to reach its science and math goals at the expense of programs in the humanities, arts or social sciences, pointing to strong growth in the number of students majoring in economics, fine arts and criminal justice.

The history department has dropped to 125 majors, down from 149 in 2008, but history professor Tyler Anbinder said the department has still seen strong enrollment in classes from students taking general requirements.

The former department chair said he thinks students will return to more humanities-based majors when the economy rebounds.

Robert McRuer, who chairs the English department, which has seen a decline of majors from 160 to 121 over the last four years, said humanities are not facing cuts at the expense of technical fields. The department got a green light to hire for a new faculty position in poetry this year and a interdisciplinary role in disability studies, he said.

“Not only have we gotten what we’ve asked for, recently, but we’ve actually been surprised to get more than we thought we would,” he said. “So as far as science is concerned, we in the English department are in favor of the science study being part of the liberal arts education.”

Due to misinformation, The Hatchet incorrectly reported that the 10 new faculty hires in Columbian College over the last three years were for science and math majors. The 10 hires were actually for all fields.

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