More Freshmen Interested in Science and Pre-Med, Pre-Law Paths

Students in a Bio 1 lab. Photo by Se Eun Gong.

Enrollment in introductory-level chemistry and physics courses has increased dramatically this year. The lab for Chem 10 (which also serves Chem 4 and 10H) usually has about 120 students, but this year, total enrollment jumped to 145, said Tom Stephenson, who coordinates that lab. Notably, the additional students are all freshmen; the numbers of upperclassmen taking those courses has remained about the same.

The Chem 10 lab is usually split into six sections, but this semester the department has had to add an extra night section. Kathleen Howard, chair of the department, said that the department is paying a lecturer and a lab instructor to conduct the extra session because they were not able to plan for this issue in advance. The budget is tight enough, though, that just paying to teach extra sections is not a sustainable solution. The department has laid out “contingency plans” for an extra session in Chem 22 next semester if it proves necessary; if this trend continues in the long-term, Howard said that the department might have to “shift its priorities,” by removing sections from higher-level courses to make up for the discrepancy.

Physics 3 has seen a similar increase in enrollment. Although there has been a gradual increase in enrollment over the past several years, this year the numbers jumped to 92, from 77 last year, according to department chair Eric Jensen.

This trend may correspond to the increase in interest in the medical and legal professions. Attendance at freshman pre-med and pre-law interest meetings nearly doubled – both drew over 120 students this year, compared to 45 for pre-law and 70 for pre-med in previous years, according to Health Sciences and Pre-Law Advisor Gigi Simeone.

Yet the Biology department has not seen an analogous increase for their intro classes — this year’s enrollment in Bio 1 was 117, fairly consistent with the last decade’s numbers. The only exception was actually last year, when there were 138 students, said department chair Liz Vallen. She noted that although biology courses may be popularly associated with the pre-medicine track, the medical school requirements include just as much physics as they do biology: two lab courses in each, and twice as many chemistry courses. Intermediate biology courses are, however, in greater demand this year: three courses had to be lotteried, while the average is two.

Although the class of 2013 is the largest on campus, the difference is not nearly enough to account for the increases in Chemistry and Physics enrollments. Perhaps the class is just more “sciencey,” but Dean of Admissions Jim Bock said that if so, it wasn’t a conscious choice. “We admit more than we matriculate,” he wrote in an email, “and [so] we don’t know what the final make up will look like.”

Simeone theorized that in the current economic climate, students might be “more interested in at least knowing what you would need to do if you wanted to go right on to professional school.” However, she expects that the number of pre-med students will decrease, as is the norm both at Swarthmore and across the nation, as they discover and switch to other career plans.

Even the science subjects not directly associated with professional career paths may be seeing an increase due to the economy. Carl Grossman, a former Physics chair, said that although he “wish[ed] it was for the love of physics that so many are taking Phys 3,” it seems more likely that students are seeing “the professions” — science, medicine, engineering, law — as a more sure bet for finding employment.

One freshman who is taking both Bio 1 and Chem 10 said medical school was “definitely a factor” in her decision to take those classes. Being pre-med, she said, does require a lot of science classes, but she also has room in her schedule for an English first-year seminar. When asked if the economy had anything to do with her decision, she paused for a second.

“Yes and no,” she said. “Being a doctor is a surefire thing. You can’t not get a job if you’re a doctor. And it is less scary to enter college with a plan.” On the other hand, she said, “You have to really love medicine to become a doctor. Few people will go through the expense and stress of med school if their motives are only for money.”

The class of 2013 might be a little more science-focused than its predecessor, but Rosaria Munson, the Classics chair, thinks that hasn’t really affected her department. Although her classes are small, she has not noticed a decrease in enrollment. The introductory Greek and Latin classes have seven and eight students, respectively — which, on the plus side, allows every student to get involved. Other classes have somewhat higher enrollments, especially the writing courses. The department has about five majors per year, but “plenty” of minors. Plus, a love for classics and a love for science are not at all incompatible. Munson was proud to point out that recently, “two star physics students were Greek minors,” and that “grad schools like to see well-rounded students.”

In fact, Bock thinks that might be part of the draw of Swarthmore in the first place. Students recognize “the strength of our science and pre-med programs in the context of a liberal arts curriculum,” he said, which allows students meet the requirements for medical school while still getting their dose of Foucault.


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