Science Labs to Count as Half Courses

Science Labs to Count as Half Courses

Starting in the 2019-2020 school year, a new academic policy will grant an additional half-course credit in lab science courses. Currently, only the biology and chemistry departments plan on using the policy for the next year. This policy was first approved by a faculty-wide vote in May 2018 and is intended to help better represent the additional workload and class hours that lab courses often demand.

The courses using the half-course lab policy will be largely introductory, consisting of major-track 100-level courses in both biology and chemistry — CHEM 151/155, CHEM 161, BIOL 181 and BIOL 191 — as well as the organic chemistry track — CHEM 221 and CHEM 231. Students can combine two half-course lab sections to form a full course towards graduation, lowering the number of full courses they are required to take by a maximum of two. The policy will not be applied retroactively.

According to Professor of Economics Adam Honig, who helped draft the initial proposal for the policy, this system is beneficial in both “reward[ing] students for the extra time spent in class,” considering the relative length of lab courses, and giving struggling students a method of recourse.

“Inevitably, a course that meets three hours a week and has a substantive lab of another three hours a week has its [requirements],” said Anthony Bishop, professor of chemistry and chair of the chemistry department. “For those students who are feeling swamped by their lab science courses, this builds in the possibility for flexibility.”

The college will only implement the policy to a limited set of courses to maintain balance across the curriculum; Bishop noted that the hope is to reduce student workload but not overemphasize science courses.

“A reason we didn’t make the upper-level courses one-and-a-half courses, even though they certainly have as much workload, is that we didn’t want to proliferate the percent of the GPA that comes from the chemistry courses or, more generally, lab [science] courses,” said Bishop. “It was sort of an unintended consequence of this new policy, and we wanted to mitigate that effect.”

“We think it’s those students that are hitting the intro courses for the first time that are seeing things about college courses that they haven’t seen before and learning how to balance time,” added Alexandra Purdy, assistant professor of biology. “We see that our students are usually much more successful as they progress in their college career. We’re focusing this where we think it’s going to be most helpful to the largest number of students.”

However, support for this policy was not unanimous among lab science faculty. Massachusetts Professor in Chemistry and Natural History and Chair of Geology Tekla Harms expressed opposition and said that the geology department would not be offering its lab courses with an additional half-course credit.

“It’s a very long-standing culture where we agree that a course is a course is a course. We recognize vast differences in courses. They’re different, but they’re meant to be equivalent,” said Harms. “I don’t think [a geology course] is different from a course that asks you to read ‘Moby Dick’ or a course that asks you to write a 20-page paper. We’ve worked hard to maintain that equivalency, even while we’re maintaining a difference.”

Some supporters acknowledged that there were flaws in the policy.

“To my mind, a strong critique is the concern about reducing the number of non-science courses that students take at Amherst,” said Bishop. “One thing that came up in faculty discussions quite regularly was, ‘Do we want to reduce the amount of sampling of the open curriculum, or even give the opportunity to reduce that?’”

Conversely, many faculty members viewed these flaws as insignificant or outweighed by the benefits.

“Most of the students probably won’t drop a course,” said Caroline Goutte, professor anchair of biology. “Most of the students will probably continue doing what they’re doing, but now they’ll earn an extra half-[course] credit. That’s really how we should look at this system.”

“In the end, a student can only apply to four half-courses towards graduation, which means that you could take 20 labs, but only four of those could count towards your 32 required courses,” added Honig. “That also means that, in the end, a student can only take a reduced course load twice.”

The physics department has not yet discussed whether or not they will implement the policy, according to Professor of Physics and Chair of Physics and Astronomy Kannan Jagannathan.

“When you do something like this, the intentions are great, but there may be some unintended consequences. We would like to see what they might be, if there are any,” said Jagannathan. “When we think about whether we want to implement it, we need to make sure to be clear [about] how we would implement it.”