The Core Curriculum: “An Academic Bootcamp”

An “Academic Boot Camp”: Harvey Mudd’s Core Curriculum


The Core Curriculum: “An academic boot camp in the STEM disciplines,” describes the Harvey Mudd College website. The curriculum comprises the majority of classes that students take through their sophomore year. Despite the influence on the education experiences of students, the Core is not static. Professor Lisa Sullivan, who was Associate Dean for Academic Affairs from 1999-2003, says, “The fact we’re small means we’re always reimagining Core.”

According to Professor Robert Cave, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs from 2003-2007 and current Interim Dean, says, “When [I] first came, the Core was bigger.” The course structure included interdisciplinary courses as well as “Core electives. One such interdisciplinary class, called “Natural Sciences,” combined sciences such as chemistry and physics into one course. Another class, called “Quest for Commonwealth,” focused on humanities. The Core electives comprised a set of classes from which students had to take three. Options included courses such as Discrete Mathematics and Introduction to Engineering Design and Manufacturing.

This Core had very limited options for electives during the first year. Because students all took the same courses the first semester, they did not need to register for the first semester. Recalls Cave: “The idea for choice really resonated with us.”

Core Curriculum Director Tom Donnelly says, “The thing that dominated the conversation was students’ ability to take foreign language courses “ The next iteration of core resulted in an elective option during the first and second semester. As a result, there was an increase in the number of students who took foreign language classes. Another, less anticipated, result of the elective was that students began taking classes for their potential majors in their freshman spring.

In addition to adding space for an elective, the core math classes changed from full-semester to half-semester. “The way we taught things, it was hard for students to place out of a full-year course,” says Cave. This change allowed students to place out of the courses they knew the material for. Additionally, students who failed or withdrew from a math course only need to retake half semester instead of a full semester, which reduces the impact on future workload.

The next changes included the development of the course known as Writ 1. This course introduces freshmen to college-level academic writing and has been taught by professors from all of the departments on campus. Because of joint teaching, Core Curriculum Direct Professor Tom Donnelly says, Writ 1 is “owned by everybody.” The effects of Writ 1, according to Cave, are “better writers” and a “conversation across campus about writing that never happened” previously.

In exchange for Writ 1 and elective space, however, the chemistry, physics, and mathematics Core curriculum was reduced.

The introduction of Computer Science to Core also resulted in an introduction to courses that offer multiple “levels,” with students placed based on their background in that field and how they performed on pre-tests. All of the classes covered the same fundamental concepts, but taught at different paces based upon pre-tests, such as CS5 Gold versus CS5 black.

“Highly talented students come in with different levels of preparation,” says Sullivan. According to Sullivan, the challenge is how to recognize that while “experimenting with this idea of making the experience as common as possible, acknowledging that we want everybody to be successful.”

Another aspect of the universality comes from students having the same introduction to all of their departments, regardless of their eventual major. Cave supports this aspect, saying, “One thing I always liked about the core when I first came is that we don’t offer a course for major and a course non majors. We offer a course.”

According to Cave, the biggest change that occurred during this version of core is that the fall of sophomore year is no longer the most difficult semester. Due to this change, Cave believes freshman spring is “an endurance test.” “There are competing interests that are important,” he says.

The next major revision has not yet begun. However, Donnelly chairs a faculty committee called the Core Curriculum Working Group. Donnelley says, “We’re looking at pressure points in the Core.” The committee is principally evaluating three specific aspects of Core: the experimental sciences curriculum, whether the mathematics aspect of the Core sufficiently prepares students, and what a unit means to the Core.

Junior engineer Liz Lee ’17 says although “you think you’re going to forget” Core, “it comes back.” However, she wishes it had been better balanced between the disciplines instead of so “math-physics-CS heavy,” but cautions, “the answer to that is [not] making all of the classes more rigorous.”

At the same time, Cave warns about Core becoming too “diluted,” and suggests, “It might be time to ask: should the Core become bigger?”

While addressing current concerns and the findings of the Core Curriculum Working Group, the next version of Core will not be unrecognizable to those who have gone through the current version. Sullivan says, “The changes are always incremental.”

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