Unit cap, new first-year requirements a boon for academic exploration. Some ask: At what cost?

Aug. 27, 2020, 6:38 p.m.

In May, the Stanford Faculty Senate approved new requirements for first-year curriculum and imposed a 100-unit cap for all undergraduate majors. The move was one of the most sweeping overhauls of academic policy in recent years.

The proposal for a new “First-Year Experience” will require three courses for first-year students covering civic, liberal and global education. The “Future of the Major Proposal” will cap majors at 100 units, reducing some engineering majors by up to 18 units.

Students have expressed mixed reactions to the new requirements. Many lauded the initiatives for allowing students to explore areas of interest outside their major, especially for students in STEM fields. Critics have raised concerns that the first-year requirement will reduce students’ academic freedom and that the unit cap will leave STEM students unprepared for the workplace.

Revised first-year requirement

The Student Alliance for Justice in Education (SAJE), a group advocating for more student engagement with the proposals, conducted a survey in early May to gather feedback on both initiatives. Many respondents to the SAJE survey had basic misconceptions about the details of each proposal.

For the proposed general education requirements, some respondents were concerned that students would be required to take more courses than they do currently. The proposed courses, however, will count toward existing WAYS requirements and will net no new required classes.

Even without added coursework, some students feel that the new general education requirements will be too restrictive. Michelle Shen ’22, a bioengineering major studying pre-med, said she likes that there are currently “buckets” of courses for students to choose from, rather than specific required classes.

“I think a lot of people, myself included, chose Stanford because our graduation requirement is very flexible,” Shen said. “I think [the new first-year program] removes some degrees of freedom, in general, from our Stanford curriculum.”

While many students are worried about the restrictions of the new first-year program, Jason Zhao ’21, a philosophy major and computer science coterm, hopes that the program will bring a much-needed change to the intellectual environment at Stanford.

Zhao said that people at Stanford are taught to contribute to social good with “private market solutions,” such as joining corporations and founding startups. But significant social change requires active engagement in the political process, and Stanford did not properly instill a sense of political participation in the public sphere, he said.

“I think that having an explicit course on [political processes] would have really changed my views on political participation,” Zhao said.

He added that a campus-wide, liberal educational experience, even if it lasted only one quarter, would benefit Stanford’s intellectual climate, and he wished the first-year program had been in place during his freshman year.

Majors capped at 100 units

Similar to the first-year program, the capping of majors at 100 units is intended to provide STEM students more flexibility to explore fields outside their primary course of study and to make majors more accessible for first-generation and/or low-income (FLI) students.

The students interviewed by The Daily agreed that the unit cap will allow students to do more academic exploration, especially students who are majoring in STEM but have other interests.

When he first came to Stanford, Zhao saw many people going into computer science, so he went along with them. Given the economic and social circumstances around campus, he said, majoring in computer science seemed like the “easy, autopilot” thing to do. When he studied abroad at Oxford in the fall of his junior year, however, Zhao said he enjoyed studying philosophy and decided to switch to majoring in it.

Zhao said that because of the high unit counts of STEM majors, many students interested in those fields feel the need to take many major-related classes early in their academic career — so lower unit counts will significantly reduce this pressure.

“I think reducing the unit counts allows people to explore earlier on, which allows you more time to develop those interests if you do find them,” Zhao said.

Some STEM students feel that their major-related studies should take priority, and they don’t have time for courses in other disciplines. Shen said she doesn’t want to “branch out” beyond her chosen field until she has become proficient in her discipline. Otherwise, she said, “I am afraid that I won’t be proficient in anything.”

Similarly, Nick Hirning ’20, a math and physics major co-terming in computer science, said many math and physics students do not take classes outside their major. He said that these students typically select their major early on, sometimes even before they set foot on campus. As a result, he said, these STEM-oriented students are not inclined to explore the humanities or social sciences even if they have room in their schedule. Instead, he predicted that under the new requirements those students might try to graduate in three years or double major in four years.

Another goal of the unit cap was to make majors more accessible for FLI students. Some engineering professors, however, argued that the unit cap would either remove introductory classes or decrease the units of required classes while maintaining their original workload. The professors claim this change will cause FLI students, many of whom lack advanced preparation in high school, to avoid engineering majors.

“I think the issue of better support for students from under-resourced high schools is important regardless of any changes to the majors,” wrote co-chair of the Committee on Undergraduate Standards and Policy and management science and engineering professor Ross Shachter in an earlier email to The Daily.

Hirning also expressed concern that the major cap would lessen the rigor of certain majors and dull the prestige of Stanford STEM degrees.

“You can’t just remove classes from a major that requires it,” he said. “They won’t be prepared for the workplace.”

Some Stanford faculty have echoed Hirning’s and Shen’s concerns. After the Faculty Senate approved the unit cap, electrical engineering professor Andrea Goldsmith said the changes could “turn Stanford Engineering into Engineering Lite and hurt our reputation.” 

Zhao, however, said he would much rather sacrifice “a tiny bit” of engineering students’ professional acumen if it would allow them to take courses outside their discipline that help them understand the impact of their work in a larger context. Zhao said undergraduate education is not just for students to be skilled in their field of study, but also for students to understand their field’s connection to political and social issues.

“To me, that is so much more important, and so much more the role of a university, than adding five or 10 more units of [courses teaching students] how to optimize an equation,” he said.

A previous version of this article did not include Goldsmith’s first name. The Daily regrets this error.

Contact Ravi Smith at ravi22 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Sania Choudhary at choudharysania123 ‘at’ gmail.com.

Sania Choudhary is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily's Summer Journalism Workshop.

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