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Pressurizing our passions

In her Nov. 13column, “Pursuing our passions,” Prianka Misra proposes that classes should “adopt a more applied philosophy and utilize an involved approach to assignments and activities, teaching students the problem-solving strategies that are reflected in the real world.” Misra discusses her experience in Professor John Danner’s interactive and application-heavy class, “Special Topics in Social Entrepreneurship: Ventures to Address Global Challenges.” The class allows students to delve into a “pre-professional realm of academics” by letting them apply the concepts they learn to their own venture ideas. While classes like Danner’s certainly offer students a new approach to learning about real-world subjects such as economic sustainability and entrepreneurship, Misra’s vision of the ideal course is not easily applicable to courses in other concentrations and could even be detrimental to the learning process of students in STEM fields.

Speaking as a science major, many of my classes require substantial amounts of memorization. I often see my classmates cramming weeks before exams trying to memorize the pathways of biochemical processes or the mechanisms of various species interactions. The main goal of these courses is to acquire enough foundational knowledge so that we can apply the concepts in the distant future. While many science classes also have a lab portion, which provides that hands-on experience that Misra advocates, the labs teach simple techniques developed by other accomplished scientists and researchers. These classes acknowledge that we, as students, are far from having enough of a background in science to create revolutionary experiments that can contribute to the fields in which we are interested. After all, safety, experience and a body of knowledge can only be acquired through study and time. In effect, we’re paying our dues so that we can develop the skills of a respected professional. In this way, labs and similarly, STEM seminars, allow students to shape their thinking so that they will have more polished, directed ways of thinking for when they want to make their own discovery, invention or theory.


Having hands-on projects in science, math and engineering classes may also be highly unrealistic time-wise if they are independent projects. But if these classes assign group projects, then we have to consider the implications of the pass/D/fail option and the lower quality of work that frequently accompanies it. Students who want to take a class for a grade (or are required to for their major) might be placed in groups with students who are not taking the class for a grade. By imposing group dynamics on previously independent courses, students who are required to take a certain class might end up needing to pick up the slack of their group members if those members don’t take the class as seriously. An interactive, application-heavy science course would cause further stress for these students who are already tied down by huge chunks of required memorization.

The distinction between classes and extracurricular activities also allows students a cushion grade-wise. Just think, if the application element of extracurricular activities were translated into classes and therefore a grade, students might be less willing to be imaginative and exploratory because they could be punished for trying something new if it doesn't work out. Because of the fear of failing for taking a risk, students might not make as impressive of a product than if they were doing the same project for an extracurricular. Similarly, students might be discouraged from participating in extracurricular activities that are too similar to class projects that they failed. For example, a BSE student might be less willing to join Engineers Without Borders if a class he were taking in the engineering department had a project similar to those of the club and he failed it.

Merging the instructive nature of classes with the application requirement of student organizations would curb the two-pronged college experience. Students would no longer feel as free to learn in the classroom setting or as free to experiment in the extracurricular activity setting. For students who are encouraged to think “out-of-the-box,” having relatively structured outlets for doing so may be exactly what is necessary to promote “free-thinking.”

Isabella Gomes is a sophomore from Irvine, Calif. She can be reached at