Biology students grapple with registration frustration

Students in the Biology Department have been growing frustrated at a lack of space in classes and the number of professors away from the College. Other departments are witnessing similar problems. Photo By: Alumni Hub
Students in the Biology Department have been growing frustrated at a lack of space in classes and the number of professors away from the College. Other departments are witnessing similar problems. Photo By: Alumni Hub
Students in the Biology Department have been growing frustrated at a lack of space in classes and
the number of professors away from the College. Other departments are witnessing similar problems. Photo By: Alumni Hub

In the next few years the science industry is expected to grow at an incredible rate. The Bureau of Labor predicts that between 2010 and 2020, life science jobs will rise 20.4 percent (Occupational employment projections to 2020, 2012). With this projected increase, it seems that many Vassar students are on the right track. Over the last few years the number of Vassar students studying science has risen, creating a problem. Has the number of science students outgrown what Vassar can offer?

Currently, 60 students remain on waitlists, hoping to get into a biology class next semester. Acting Dean of the Faculty Stephen Rock notes that this is a trend occurring in several different departments. “In addition to Biology, we are also seeing increasing student demand for courses in Chemistry, Economics, and Mathematics, among others,” he noted, writing in an emailed statement.

The Biology Department is working to open more seats in classes, but not everyone will be able to get in. For a variety of reasons, adding enough new sections and seats for everyone is not possible.

Chair of the Biology Department John Long says that size of the lab section, space limitations, staff limitations and faculty limitations are all problems that prevent everyone from getting into a class.

Biochem major Jenny Nguyen ‘14 shared what she thinks is the source of registration trouble. She wrote in an emailed statement, “The department is really understaffed, and this problem is exacerbated when professors are on sabbatical, especially those who are the only professors known to teach a particular subject, because that often means that certain courses are unavailable for an entire year.”

With a limited number of technicians and faculty, adding classes is difficult, as more people would have to be hired, which the budget may not be able to support. But Long believes that these are not the most pressing issues. Said Long, “Foremost here is safety: too many students in a laboratory might quickly lead to unsafe conditions.”

Space is another issue, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem that will be addressed anytime soon. Although the demand for biology courses is expanding, the department is actually losing space in the coming year.

Long noted that in 2014, when the department moves back into Olmsted Hall of the Biological Sciences after vacating it for the summer, the department will have less space than before. To make room for the addition of the Psychology Department to Olmsted, the Biology Department will lose a microscopy suite, a stockroom and several laboratories.

While the Biology Department seems to need more space, Acting Dean of the Faculty Rock believes that this won’t be too much of an issue. Admitting that he might not be the best person to ask about space concerns, he wrote “[W]e don’t anticipate any detrimental impact on Biology students.”

While the department has added new hires each year, in her seven years here, Director of the Biochemistry Program Jodi Schwarz notes that they all have been replacements. While there’s been more demand for biology classes, the department actually has one less professor than it did seven years ago.

“However, we are currently hiring an Animal Behavior position that will bring us back to the same number of tenure track lines that we had when I started here,” wrote Schwarz.

For Milee Nelson ’16, not taking a biology class next semester would complicate he plans for the future. Currently Nelson is waiting to get into Biology 238, Genetics. But because she has the time to make up for it in the coming semesters, she is optimistic. “I’m not going abroad, so it’s not a big problem for me personally, but it is for many,” she said.

Biology major Maya Khatri ‘15 has also had troubled registering for biology and biology-chemistry classes in her Vassar career.

As Khatri wrote in an emailed statement, “Last year I joined a new class taught by a  professor as her first teaching job, because I couldn’t get into anything else and they created the class after so many people were wait listed for biology classes.”

She explained that although the class proved productive, she still faced challenges specializing within her major. “It was a good class but it’s hard to have a focus in anything with requirements and the difficulty of getting into small lab classes.”The current status of the waitlists may be promising for some. Wrote Long, “As of today, 2 Dec 2013, we are waiting for CCP (Committee on Curricular Policies) to consider our request to teach a new section of Molecular Genetics (Biology 238), on Wednesday.  CCP needs to rule if we can use this illegal teaching time, and they meet on 5 December 2013. This extra laboratory was made possible by additional funding from the Dean of the Faculty, Steve Rock.

The new section will add 18 seats at the 200 level. This will allow about half of those on the Molecular Genetics waitlist to take the course, but ultimately leave 42 students without a biology class next semester. What will happen to those students vying to meet their major requirements is unclear.

Nguyen does not consider providing additional sections after preregistration a viable solution.“The problem with resolving the issue this way is that by the time the new section opens, people who were unable to get into the class have figured out an alternative schedule, so it seems like interest in the class has declined,” wrote Nguyen.

Wrote Rock, “It’s my hope that every sophomore who wishes to do so, will be able to enroll in a 200-level Biology course next semester. It’s also my hope that the enrollment situation in that department will improve in the fall with the addition of new faculty members.”

Said Schwarz, “We wish that every student could take every course that they wanted, in the semester that they want it. However, this is not realistic. Given the enrollment pressures that we are working under, we work very, very hard to try and accommodate students who are wait listed for courses.”

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