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Correct the curves: Princeton’s intro STEM courses are inequitable

In the foreground, a glass-covered building with vertical bar lights inside. On the right, a brutalist-style gray building with narrow, horizontal black windows. In the background, a cloudy sky looms.
Lewis Library and Fine Hall house many introductory STEM courses.
Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian

Above all else, Princeton prides itself on the academic rigor of its curriculum. However, while the University’s high standards of excellence and fast-paced environment may be valid goals to strive for, not all students are able to keep up with the pace.

After all, Princeton admits applicants from all over the world. Consequently, incoming students come from several different types of academic backgrounds, including private schools, charter schools, public schools both resource wealthy and resource lacking, vocational academies, and community colleges. Because of this wide variety of academic backgrounds, there is naturally a disparity between the collegiate preparation and academic training of the incoming students. This disparity is especially apparent for first-generation-low income (FGLI) students who often disproportionately experience greater difficulty in keeping up with Princeton’s high standards of academic rigor.


In order to effectively address this disparity, Princeton needs to re-evaluate the difficulty of the STEM introductory courses and implement equity-oriented solutions that directly address the different levels of student preparation. After all, the level of academic rigor at Princeton can only be truly effective if all students are first able to work on a level playing field. 

Even as a first-year at Princeton, I quickly became acutely aware of the range of academic backgrounds among my peers. I felt as though this disparity was especially evident in introductory courses. Throughout high school, I was a student who enjoyed and performed well in math, and I would definitely say that my two AP Calculus courses were my favorite classes. Once I entered Princeton, I enrolled in a required BSE math course MAT 201: Multivariable Calculus, following Princeton’s AP and SAT guidelines for placement. However, I quickly grew to dread math class.

It was not long before I was struggling beyond belief in the course. I was attending both weekly tutoring sessions and office hours just to complete the homework. My usual study habits no longer worked, and the curve did little to help my grade. Increasingly, I noticed that when exams came around, students with prior experience in multivariable calculus or with stronger academic backgrounds tended to perform better and affect the curve. After all, these are students who are essentially forced to retake a course similar to one they have already taken.

MAT 201 is just one example of Princeton’s many difficult introductory STEM courses. For instance, COS 126: Computer Science — An Interdisciplinary Approach is presented as a rudimentary course geared towards students of all levels. However, it is infamously difficult for students who have no background in coding, due to its fast pace and time-consuming weekly programming assignments. As one student review indicated: “This course is [not] a beginner friendly environment.” Another example is MOL 214: Introduction to Cellular and Molecular Biology. I struggled in MOL 214 due to my high school’s lackluster science program. Although there are more accessible biology courses than MOL 214 offered at Princeton, those courses don’t satisfy degree requirements for STEM majors. Introductory physics courses also similarly trap students with expectations of background knowledge and prior experience in the subject. Since you can only place out of physics by taking an exam that tests both mechanics as well as electricity and magnetism, students who have taken either course in a prior year are stuck re-taking the subject. 

Princeton should implement specific solutions in introductory STEM courses to address the inequity of educational backgrounds. Currently, Princeton does provide a variety of different resources for students who may feel out of their depth in these introductory STEM courses. For instance, the McGraw Center provides both individual tutoring as well as group study halls for many of these courses. However, for popular courses, these programs tend to fill up quickly. Office hours with professors and TAs are also offered, but these resources also tend to become crowded as the course’s workload intensifies. Another potential resource is the Scholars Institute Fellows Program (SIFP) through the Emma Bloomberg Center for Access & Opportunity. They offer precepts and weekly math tables where students can get help from the other students and faculty in a more relaxed environment. In the SIFP precepts, instructors discuss problem-solving strategies, work on tailored problem sets, and provide individualized support. Although I believe that SIFP precepts are especially helpful for intro classes, SIFP primarily benefits students who are FGLI. Consequently, students who came from disadvantaged high schools, but are not under the FGLI umbrella, are unable to access SIFP’s resources and support. Therefore, I believe the University can still take additional measures to specifically address the present inequity.

It is vital that the University explore equity-driven solutions to help alleviate stress surrounding these introductory STEM courses. A potential solution may include allowing or even encouraging students who have previously taken an equivalent course to test out. As a result, students who have previously taken a similar or equivalent course will not be forced to retake it, and can instead be placed at an education level that more accurately matches their academic background. Though some students may still elect to enroll in the course regardless, by providing this option, this will help to filter out students who are already familiar with the content. Additionally, it can help prevent a negative curve by leaving these introductory courses for students who are not familiar with the material. 


Another possible solution may be to implement a predetermined curve that is not dependent on how well students are currently performing in the course. In certain courses, curves can easily change from semester to semester and may often depend heavily on the performance of certain well-performing students — making it unfair for others. Ideally, a curve should be beneficial to students regardless of the performance of other students in the course. Furthermore, it might also be helpful to allow introductory courses or prerequisites to be taken on a Pass/D/Fail (PDF) basis, so that students don’t have to worry about their GPA so early in their academic career. 

In order to address the disparity in students’ academic background, it is essential that Princeton identify and implement solutions in introductory courses, where the equity “gap” tends to be most apparent.

Yushra Guffer is a sophomore contributing columnist majoring in Electrical and Computer Engineering. 

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