By Jacob Turnrose | News Editor

At Saint Mary’s College, every student must inevitably choose which science course they’d like to take to fulfill the Core requirements.

As described by the College, the Core Curriculum is “an intentional, developmental, and integrated program of study designed to educate students in three broad intellectual areas: Habits of Mind, Pathways to Knowledge, and Engaging the World.” And as known, the Scientific Understanding requirement falls under Pathways to Knowledge.

While the School of Science has nine programs under its wing, and dozens of course offerings, an overwhelming amount of students choose either Historical (or Physical) Geology or Astronomy to fulfill their Scientific Understanding requirement. Put simply, Geology and Astronomy attract a disproportionate number of students.

Why are these subjects so popular? What makes these subjects more popular than Biology or Chemistry?

Roy Wensley, the Dean of the School of Science, has a couple working theories.

For one, he argues that Geology and Astronomy are popular because they appeal to students culturally. 

Students take Astronomy because the subject has a lot of mass appeal, thinks Wensley.

“Astronomy is in the news a lot. The Hubble Telescope was popular a while ago… I think a lot of students are interested in the universe,” he said. One could certainly look at the recent hysteria surrounding the August 21st total solar eclipse to understand Wensley’s claim.

Wensley, who has taught Astronomy in the past, believes that its popularity might also have to do with the late Ron Olowin, who passed away on August 5. Olowin was the Astronomy professor since 1991. “He had a reputation for being an enthusiastic and fascinating professor,” said Wensley. He speculates that it was the popularity of Olowin what made the Astronomy course popular.

Understanding Geology’s draw amongst non-science students is a bit more puzzling for Wensley, who self-admittedly might be biased as he is a Professor of Physics. “Geology was introduced 15-20 years ago and was actually taught by Biology faculty. And that’s where it gained its reputation,” he said. “ It continues to allure students for some reason.”

Wensley does think that it’s allure may have something to do with California’s unique position along many faults. Moraga itself is in close enough proximity to the San Andreas fault line. He also sees Geology’s tangibility as attractive. “[Geology] deals with stuff you can see,” he said. And the same can be said for Astronomy.

Wensley speculates that the two subjects might be popular because they’re rarely taught in high schools. “No one takes Geology and Astronomy in high school… but [many] do take Biology and Chemistry,” he said. “Maybe that has something to do with it.”

Regardless of why Geology and Astronomy are so popular, the fact that they are makes it hard for other science subjects to offer a class that would hold comparable interest amongst non-science majors, said Wensley.

“Once a reputation sets in, it gets reinforced … by academic advisors and the students talking amongst themselves,” he said.

And for other science departments that decide to offer a class for non-science majors, “[They] have to do a lot of public relations work,” he said.

The Biology Department, for example, once offered a course titled “Microbes in Society.”

This course was introduced in the Spring of 2015 and was marketed to non-science majors. However, the course was cancelled because of low enrollment.

The low enrollment in turn was, according to Professor Vidya Chandrasekaran, “Due to a lack of awareness towards the course amongst the general student body.” “The publicity wasn’t there,” she added. “There needs to be a lot of word of mouth. With Geology and Astronomy, there’s a lot of word of mouth.” 

Dr. Chandrasekaran was the Chair of the Biology Department from the Spring of 2013 to the Spring of 2016.

She noted that posters advertising the course were put up, but only in Brousseau Hall, unfamiliar land for the average Liberal Arts or SEBA (School of Economics and Business Administration) student. 

Despite offering a class for non-science majors, the Biology Department found it inevitably hard to compete with the perennial  twin juggernauts of Geology and Astronomy.

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