Core and COVID: Caltech Hosts Biannual Student Faculty Conference

On Tuesday, April 18th, Caltech held its biannual Student Faculty Conference (SFC), an all-day forum between students and faculty about individual majors, and undergraduate academics as a whole. The conference, one of the few times the Caltech community gets to formally have their complaints heard, was held in person for the first time since 2019.

Throughout this past year, the Academics and Research Committee (ARC) planned the event, creating SFC committees composed of students and faculty that review certain issues. Individual, major-specific panels were hosted throughout the day. There were two special committees that presented.

The Effects of Covid on Academics.

This committee’s goal was to investigate how COVID-related practices affected undergraduate academics, to bridge the gap between student and faculty perspectives, and to ultimately provide recommendations moving forward.

The committee found that interpersonal interactions and community were severely limited. Student-student interaction was hampered, resulting in less collaboration and more cheating. Faculty-student relationships were also reduced to asking for extensions as class interactivity was made harder over Zoom, and fewer students showed up to meet with their advisors. “Now, I spend 90% of my interactions talking about extensions with students, whereas I used to be talking [with students] about science,” says Betty Hong (BS ‘02, Page), Assistant Professor of Neuroscience and Chen Scholar.

There were also many logistic concerns. Classroom and institute policies were not consistent. The institute would quarantine students, but not require professors to record their lectures. Professors also felt overwhelmed with handling extension requests and figuring out how to accommodate remote students. More struggling and cheating students put more strain on the Board of Control, ARC, and TAs.

The committee issued a number of recommendations.

For future classes, they advised that professors keep recordings while encouraging students to be more engaged with their fellow students and their teachers. For the departments and divisions, they recommended establishing uniform policies for late work, extensions, etc as well as encouraging more mentorship & social opportunities for upperclassmen to interact with freshmen.

Institute-wide, they recommended increasing support for Academic Media Technologies to help professors record their lectures, encouraging student engagement with academic support offices, establishing clear protocols for supporting students with illnesses, and re-emphasizing the honor code.

Flexibility in the Core Curriculum

With core classes taking up 40% of all graduation requirements, the question of how core should be handled has been a persistent one. Recently, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), the organization that decides if Caltech gets accreditation (meets educational standards) has issued recommendations regarding core.

In a Commission Action Letter issued on March 3, 2021, the WASC listed a number of issues regarding the Core Curriculum that Caltech needed to respond to. These included redeploying teaching resources to enhance flexibility in core classes, how well core humanities and social sciences develop communication skills, and how well students are prepared to be good citizens and leaders.

With that, the committee conducted a 66-question survey of 298 undergrads about core. Based on the survey, the committee suggested discussing the flexibility of core, the efficacy of classes, opportunities for exploration, and support for students. The committee’s findings and recommendations were as follows.

Menu and seminar classes should be merged to increase scheduling flexibility, more topics should be offered, and these classes should be better advertised to frosh.

78% of students take CS1, and many classes use it as a prerequisite. CS1 should replace a current core class (likely a HSS). Different tracks of the course may be offered based on major

32% of students complete their intro lab frosh year, which defeats the purpose of them being used to explore a new field. Ch 3 a/x drives students away from the chemistry major due to its difficulty and poor management. The committee recommends making Ch3 part of the intro labs, which would reduce enrollment in the class, hopefully making it better taught.

Over 75% of students think there are too many HSS requirements. >49% of students think the writing intensive hums do not improve their writing skills. Hiring certified writing instructors and having more combined STEM and humanities classes (i.e. Ethics and A.I.) could alleviate these issues.

For Ma1a, 70% found the class did not improve their understanding of calculus. Further discussion on integrating proof based math into core is needed.

Overall, the committee wants core to allow students to explore fields of their choice, but still prepare them to succeed in their major-specific coursework. A total of 15 units from core are advised to be dropped.

Possible topics to investigate in the future include teaching quality of core sciences, usefulness of pseudo-core classes like Ph 2 and Ma 3, and topic-splitting courses like B1 b, Bi 1 g, and Bi1 x.