As someone who is involved with a role in the University of Minnesota’s curriculum, I am concerned that Howard Root’s “No hard sciences? Then no job offer” (Business Forum, April 21) misrepresents the breadth and rigor of our offerings. The quality of the U’s undergraduate curriculum, taught by faculty who are national and international leaders in their fields, is second to none.
Of the approximately 5,400 first-year students at the U each fall, nearly 2,500 are studying in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. These students are majoring in chemistry, earth sciences, chemical engineering, aeronautical engineering, biomedical engineering, animal science, environmental science, psychology, statistics, architecture and geographic information science, among other fields. The curriculum for these majors is infused with math and science — calculus, differential equations, statistics, basic chemistry, organic chemistry, physics and computer science, as well as significant hard science upper-division coursework. Currently, the largest class at the undergraduate level with the most demand is basic chemistry.
Over the past decade we have increased the number of STEM degrees awarded at the U of M-Twin Cities from 1,909 in 2003 to 2,708 in 2012, an increase of almost 800 degrees per year. We also teach thousands of bright students in the arts, humanities and social sciences, all of whom also must have math and science to graduate. The U is certainly not “science-light.”
Root also questions the communication skills of our students. The U maintains a rigorous set of writing requirements. All undergraduates must take a freshman class in writing and four additional writing-intensive classes, including writing coursework in their major. We are nationally recognized for our Writing-Enriched Curriculum program, where writing is infused within the academic major and students learn disciplinary-based communication (i.e., effective writing in engineering, or physics, or dance).
Our B.S. in scientific and technical communication is one of the oldest and most recognized degrees of its kind anywhere in the country. Its graduates are sought after by technology companies nationally, including many in the medical device industry. Recently, the curriculum was revised to keep up with changes in the field. In recognizing the strong need for scientific and technical writing, the College of Liberal Arts and the College of Science and Engineering recently created a new undergraduate certificate in “technical communication.” From the time students arrive on campus to the moment they graduate, our curriculum is rich with writing and communication courses, many of which are required.
Root concludes by calling on the university “to return to the traditions of a liberal arts education with a required undergraduate curriculum of substantive courses in science, math, literature, composition and speech that requires a student to learn how to learn.” In fact, we are already there. We have one of the more comprehensive sets of liberal education requirements in the country.
All students must complete seven courses in what we call the core, including at least one course in mathematical thinking, physical science with a laboratory, biological science with a laboratory, social sciences, arts, literature and the humanities. Additionally, all undergraduate students must take four classes that focus on societal issues, including The Environment, Civic Life and Ethics, Diversity and Social Justice in the United States, Global Perspectives, and Technology and Society. In total, students must take 11 courses that provide significant breadth in the way we understand knowledge, and the relevance of this knowledge to current societal issues.
Through these required courses, students are exposed to the University’s Student Learning Outcomes: can identify, define, and solve problems; can locate and critically evaluate information; have mastered a body of knowledge and a mode of inquiry, and can communicate effectively. Throughout the curriculum, faculty use these and other outcomes to make certain our undergraduates are indeed learning, and this learning is measured.
In addition to providing a solid basic academic background to our students, we also strongly emphasize experiences to create well-rounded students. A high percentage of our students participate in undergraduate research, study abroad, service learning and internships. We encourage students to become leaders (many complete our leadership minor) and volunteer. Perhaps most importantly, we expect our students to leave with the desire and skills to become lifelong learners.
We send thousands of students into the workforce who are both broad and deep in their education — effective communicators, strong in math and science and who are leaders with a strong sense of civic responsibility. I have had the privilege of teaching at four major universities over the past 30 years, both public and private. There is no doubt in my mind that the students at the University of Minnesota, in every way, are among the very best in American higher education.
I am afraid that Mr. Root’s experiences are at odds with nearly everything we hear from our alumni, employers and donors.
Robert B. McMaster is professor of geography and vice provost and dean of undergraduate education at the University of Minnesota.