The Future of Science at CMC

For most students at Claremont McKenna College, studying science is akin to being stranded on a small island in a vast sea of economics and government. In last year’s graduating class, 17 percent of CMC graduates majored in a science related field, compared to 52 percent of the class majoring in economics, economics-accounting and government. It is becoming a priority of the administration, however, to balance those numbers. Since 2002, the College has adopted a strategic plan that recognizes the important role of science in the progress and national security of the United States in addition to the demand for science majors in the job market.

"Clearly, the world's largest problems require interdisciplinary solutions," said CMC President Pamela Gann in a 2007 press release. "In the global environment of the new century, the convergence of leadership and science is absolutely essential."

While the increased use of the word “science” in President Gann’s speeches is one indication of CMC’s enhanced commitment to science, the recent surges of grants, scholarships and other science opportunities available to students serve as concrete examples.

One of the primary examples of these opportunities is the recently developed the Interdisciplinary Science Scholarship (ISS), which was implemented in 2007. In order to be eligible for the scholarship, which is awarded by the office of admission, students must come from a lower income household and dual or double major in a science and non-science related major or an interdisciplinary science program. The full tuition scholarship is awarded to approximately thirteen students per year.

“The scholarship was designed for two main purposes,” explains Abigail Flores, Director of Foundation and Corporate Relations. “One was to increase the number of interdisciplinary students on campus and the other was to make a CMC education accessible to students from lower incomes.”

In addition to the ISS, The Rose Hills Foundation provides scholarships to CMC juniors and seniors majoring in science or engineering. The Foundation also funds a different scholarship for students to conduct research over the summer.

While the recent increase in opportunities for CMC science students have attempted to increase the numbers, an increase in the number of students studying science can be partially attributed to the growth and prestige of the Joint Science Department. (JSD) Since the construction of the Keck Science Center in 1992, enrollment and the number of faculty have nearly tripled, making JSD the largest academic institution at the Claremont Colleges.

“When the new science center was built, it dramatically increased JSD’s profile on campus,” explains Andrew Zanella, Professor of Chemistry at JSD.

Within the past few years, the quality of science education at CMC has greatly improved due to the increase in grants and funding. Most of these grants have sought to increase undergraduate research, foster small class sizes, create more tenured professorships and update facilities. An example of these upgrades is a new high powered spectrometer installed this year. The new spectrometer, a 500 MHz NMR, is a nuclear magnetic resonance imaging machine used analyze the structure of organic molecules.

“Relatively few liberal arts colleges have a 500 MHz NMR instrument, which expands our possibilities for studying reactions,” explains Zanella.

With the increase of funding available to students and the high quality of JSD’s facilities and faculty, the ability for students to receive a superior science education at CMC has become much easier in recent years. Furthermore, the relatively concentrated focus on economics and government at CMC also provide science majors with the opportunity for comprehensive interdisciplinary study. One of JSD's greatest strengths is the ability to complete a wide variety of interdisciplinary majors, such as Environment , Economics and Politics, in addition to dueling or double majoring in other subjects.

“The long and short of it is that CMC has a good product,” explains Lora Hess, Associate Director of Foundation and Corporate Relations. “Our students are talented across disciplines and when you add in all of the opportunities students have at CMC and across campuses, you get a good result.”

Yet, the recent reduction of the science general education requirement from two semesters to one has many questioning how much importance the administration places on science education for all majors, not just those studying science.

In addition to reducing the number of semesters needed to fulfill the science GE, the faculty has mandated that students take their GE's in their first two years of study.

"Recently, too many students were taking their GE requirement in science during their senior year," explains Dean of Faculty, Gregory Hess. "These changes give the Joint Science Department sufficient space and capacity to continue to revise their GE course offerings."

The decision to reduce the science GE, however, is only temporary and will be reviewed within 4 or 5 years, with the default that the requirement would return to two courses.

"The change by the Faculty was meant to take more science early in Claremont and  allow some flexibility in order for science faculty to continue to create strong GE courses," explains Dean Hess. "In no way has the importance of science diminished at CMC."