Physics and chemistry chairs voice concerns about cutting contact hours

By Matthew Grattan (BSE ’19), Olivia Heuiyoung Park (ME ‘20), and Jeremiah V. Pratt (EE ’19)

On Jan. 30, the chairs of chemistry, physics, and math received separate emails from the Dean’s office informing them of a massive change in the structure of their classes: Beginning next semester, all classes must reduce the number of contact hours to match the credits offered.

The idea of reducing contact hours to match the number of credits in some classes was discussed almost a year ago at an engineering faculty meeting. However, the engineering faculty heard little else of the topic until the Dean’s office sent out the directives.

To better understand the faculty’s views on this directive, The Pioneer interviewed Andrea Newmark, Professor and Chair of Chemistry, Alan Wolf, Professor and Chair of Physics, and Richard Stock, Dean of the School of Engineering.

Although the administration communicated instructions tailored to each department, many professors and chairs feel the rationale behind the change was not well discussed. “A lot of terms were thrown out, but we don’t feel we fully understand why the administration is doing this,” explained Newmark.

According to a Feb. 8 email from Engineering Student Council, the directive from the Dean’s office is an attempt to standardize the number of weekly classroom contact hours with the number of credits earned, “as per New York State regulations.” However, the New York state regulations (8 CRR-NY 50.1) only define the minimum number of contact hours required for one credit, not a maximum.

In a sense, the change is an artificial constraint, and from a purely curricular standpoint, it seems to have minimal benefit. For classes with more contact hours than credits, either teaching time must be cut, or the credits must be increased.

The administration has opted to reduce hours rather than increase credits, which some regard as harming Cooper Union’s academic rigor. But increasing credits would not be a simple compromise between enforcing New York State guidelines and preserving educational rigor.

Currently, engineering students need a total of 135 credits to graduate. If credits increased to match contact hours in every required class in the chemistry, math, and physics departments, the number of required credits would become 143 or 144, depending on the specific major. Requiring more credits could make Cooper Union less appealing when compared to other schools.

“It’s one thing to say that you’re getting more for your money because the faculty is spending more time with you,” observed Newmark. “It’s another thing to say, ‘you need 140 credits to graduate from Cooper Union, but at this other school you only need 135.’ How are you going to sell that?”

For the chemistry department, the change would effectively cut 25% of the introductory chemistry curriculum. Currently, Ch110 General Chemistry and Ch160 Physical Principles of Chemistry are both three-credit courses taught for four hours per week; the administration’s directive would reduce the weekly contact hours to three.

“There’s a lot of material that we feel is important,” said Newmark regarding the chemistry department’s stance on the issue. “In order to cover the material that students need in a year long chemistry course, we’d need the four hours.”

Reducing contact hours could also change how courses are taught in the chemistry department. Less class time could be spent on reviewing homework, the number of tests could be reduced, and some topics could be left out entirely.

But the chemistry department isn’t ready to change their teaching methods just yet. According to Newmark, “we haven’t discussed what we’d do as a department because we haven’t really felt that it’s been finalized.” The department is currently discussing alternatives to cutting contact hours with the administration.

Not only is the material covered in the first two semesters of chemistry crucial for higher-level chemistry and chemical engineering classes, but it is also important for students who plan to take admissions tests for medical school. Beyond that, a background in basic chemistry is arguably necessary in understanding current events in science and technology.

“You might say, ‘well, why do you need the extra hour of chemistry?’ but I think you also need a basic, solid foundation in science, math, and engineering,” Newmark opined. “Given the times we live in with climate change and other environmental problems, I think all people should have a good basic science understanding—especially engineers or people who are trained as engineers.”

Wolf concurs. “Students should be concerned that the reputation of the school and degree will be harmed… the value of the degree will be questioned by others once they see the proposed changes for contact hours and credits.”

The proposed changes for contact hours and credits “came down as a dictate,” instead of going through the Curriculum Committee and the union,” explained Wolf, referring to the the Cooper Union Federation of College Teachers.

Wolf explained that they’ve only had informal discussions, and members did not have an opportunity to respond. No official announcements were made to the rest of the engineering faculty other than the affected departments, and the requirement that it be implemented beginning in the fall appears hasty.

Furthermore, Wolf believes that this would only result in saving a “microscopic amount of money compared to the money that Cooper Union has to worry about, and there are other places we could make savings,” and that, should there be big savings, they should be “open about the numbers” and share them.

“Cooper used to be a place that’s free and excellent. Then we got tuition, and it became a place that’s not too expensive, and maybe excellent. Now it’ll be a place that’s not free, and has a weaker curriculum,” Wolf said. He added, “this is a very scary experiment to try. What if it does impact students’ ability to do advanced level coursework? We shouldn’t risk the reputation of the school, as it is impossible to undo a loss like this.”

Class time, to Wolf, is where material is taught, questions are answered, and problems get practiced. Wolf also questions how to account for the nine weekly hours lost across the chemistry, math, and physics departments. Some options are to lecture or teach the material faster, to cut recitation hours, to cut content, or to cut practicing questions, all of which could prove problematic.

“None of our students have had enough exposure to physics to be able to tutor other students in it,” says Wolf, as a counter argument for students tutoring others to make up for the lost time. “The first time through all these courses, we only expect you to get so much of it, but I think by the time you’ve made your way through all the physics courses, you’re doing more sophisticated stuff. We’ve brought your brain to a different place.”

Wolf highlights that “we don’t teach physics because we want to give you all the little bits of physics information. Some of those bits of information are important, but you will probably never see 98% of those bits. We teach what we teach, the whole package of physics courses, because we believe in the integrity of the discipline. I think the same is true for chemistry and math.”

“We hope that by the time you finish all the physics courses, you understand how the bits fit together. You have an analytical ability as a more sophisticated thinker. All of the bits together create an ability in you, which is more than just individual bits of knowledge.”

Wolf is concerned that the proposed changes will mean that there’s less time to prepare the students’ brains to the capacity of learning and the ability to apply the concepts and a higher level of thinking.

“Doing this to me is a little bit like saying, ‘don’t have law school for 3 years. Don’t teach people how to think like lawyers. Just have them memorize the little bits of New York law that would be on the bar exam.’”

Dean Stock, however,  disagrees with professors’ sentiments that these changes will harm the engineering school. For him, these changes represent huge advantages in allocation of resources, whether those be spatial, temporal, or professorial.

“I think the underlying issue with that process is that we want to achieve some degree of consistency with how we deliver the program. I also think that there are advantages to this change, especially with regards to scheduling and flexibility for students and flexibility for adding electives,” explained Stock.

“I think some people are concerned about cost-savings, but the understanding is the actual cash we spend out is more or less going to be the same — it’s how we spend it. For example, if we eliminate some of the extra contact hours in one of the departments, a couple of professors there can teach another course. So they’re obviously going to be paid their salary whatever happens, but from the point of view of the use of our resources it makes a lot of sense.”

Dean Stock also wanted to make clear that this process was not brief, and that coordination efforts were made long before the notification emails to math, physics, and chemistry were sent on Jan. 30.

“This started in Spring 2016, when the trustees asked us to find a further $7.8 million. I tried to look at was getting into how we do business, how we teach, what we do, and see if there is a  way that I could identify a way we could get more value for our money. That I presented to the FEC. Ultimately things went to the trustees and the concepts were included in their plans for going forward. So I introduced the ideas to the faculty very briefly in a faculty meeting.”

Before these changes rolled out to physics, chemistry, and math, Dean Stock coordinated with the major-specific engineering departments to incorporate contact hour changes into their own curricula. Most, if not all, of the 5 majors had their own contact hour discrepancies that he sought to remedy.

“I spoke to each of the departments individually. There was a range of what I like to call ‘curricular anomalies,’ where classes were meeting for more hours than their credit hours. Some of those anomalies were fine, but some had to change, and the Engineering departments changed the way they were doing stuff. Either an extra contact hour went away, or the Engineering department made a curricular change to give that course an extra credit, and that process all went through the curriculum committee and the faculty.”

Because of the extensive nature of the necessary cuts in math, physics, and chemistry, Dean Stock met with each of those departments individually in an attempt to coordinate the effort to normalize the curriculum.

“That was in the spring of 2017,” explained Stock. “This is something that is embedded in the trustees’ plans, so we need to be looking at some changes. So I asked them to consider those changes, and to get back to me if they have any suggestions or other plans or alternatives that we could consider.”

Even into the beginning of this semester, there has been conflict over the timeline of this process and how professors were notified. Dean Stock sent out notifications to the math, physics, and chemistry departments.

“That was the day we had a faculty meeting, and the reason that I didn’t mention the change there was I didn’t get the go-ahead until after that meeting. Part of that was because I’d been pestering people saying that this has to go out before Professor Guido asks for scheduling input. It was somewhat last minute from that point of view, but it was a process.”

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