I strongly support mixing majors and general-education students in the
same introductory courses.
(1) Introductory courses within the discipline generally do not carry
prerequisites other than a HS diploma. If a student cannot step from HS
into college and take the introductory English course, psychology
course, math course, chemistry course, etc. then something is wrong.
Stepping from a HS senior history course into a college first history
course for majors should be little different than stepping from a HS
junior history course to a HS senior history course. It's just the
"next step in the progression."
In general, if this is not true, then either the HS is not up to snuff,
or the college is teaching the introductory courses at too high a level.
In science, there could be a problem with chemistry because only 50% of
high school graduates took chemistry in high school. Therefore, should
the 1st college chemistry course assume the students had HS chemistry or
not? We teach our 1st chemistry course at a "half-way level." Compared
to the "next step in the progression" mentioned above, the size of the
step depends on the student. If a standard stair step is 8-inches,
perhaps we can say our 1st majors chemistry course is a 10-inch step for
those who did not have HS chemistry, and a 6-inch step for those who
did. Is this wrong? I don't think so. It is accessible to both, and
even those who view it as a small step gain from the experience. Those
with HS chemistry especially find the lab considerably "more" than they
experienced in HS.
Physics is worse because only 20% of HS graduates took physics. Worse
yet, the first course for physics usually has calculus as a pre- or
co-requisite. Since many college physics programs teach calculus and
calculus-based physics at the same time (calculus as a co-requisite with
the physics), many introductory majors-level physics textbooks teach the
essential calculus as it is needed. That way, if the physics class gets
to the point of needing derivatives before the calculus class gets
there, the physics class is not held back. Likewise for integration.
Indeed, since the calculus students spend a lot of time on limits, and
the physics course gets to velocity and acceleration real fast, I always
find that I am teaching derivatives even to those who are currently
taking calculus. Likewise for integration, because we hit integration
when we study work, and that comes about midterm in first semester
physics whereas integration comes at the end of the first semester of
Therefore, I only recommend but do not require calculus as either a
prerequisite or co-requisite. It is not obvious to me that the
preparation makes as much difference as the attitude of the student.
Bright students without calculus and without HS physics have done well
in my course. Bright student having had both have failed my course.
I think a good HS graduate who is not a science major can take my
calculus-based introductory physics course along with the physics
majors. Indeed, many have done so.
(2) Departments often view introductory courses as recruiting courses.
That is important to the department, but the value to the student is
greater. Well over half of students coming to college either don't know
their major, or change their major (which implies they didn't really
know it). There is no way for the student to get a feel for what the
discipline is like if they take "physics for poets" rather than the
introductory course for majors.
I took introductory philosophy with philosophy majors, introductory
psychology with psychology majors, calculus 1 with math majors,
general-chemistry with chemistry majors, and English composition with
English majors (all at the same time, my very first semester of
college). I also enjoyed playing in the college band, singing in the
choir, and I took private trumpet lessons (that same first semester).
By the time the semester was over I had a good idea what it might be
like to major in philosophy, psychology, math, chemistry, music
performance. I also realized I liked them all and I probably could
succeed in all of them. Eventually chemistry and physics won, but I was
also one course short of a math major, and I continued to play in the
band and sing in the choir all four years of college.
I still think this is what college is all about; especially a
liberal-arts college; and that is why I have chosen to teach at a
liberal-arts college for the past 26 years.
(3) I especially like it when upper-class non-majors decide to take a
majors-level science course. These students bring something into the
classroom that is not otherwise there. I am currently teaching
astronomy. This is not taught as a lower-level gen-ed course. The
population is mostly science majors, including physics majors using this
as the required astronomy course for their physics major.
One senior religion major and one senior philosophy major are in the
course this term. They each say it is one of the most enlightening
courses they have taken in college. They ask more questions and more
interesting questions than the physics majors. I talked to them before
they enrolled. They expressed some intimidation of being in a course
with mostly physics majors. I assured them they would be fine, and
after six weeks of classes they have both told me more than once how
happy they are to be in the class. I don't know who is happier, the
students or myself.
Michael D. Edmiston, Ph.D.
Professor of Chemistry and Physics
Bluffton, OH 45817