The New Core: Perspectives on a Changing Curriculum

Articles by Mira Kaniyur, photos by Josaphat Ngoga

Frosh, ever wonder why upperclassmen get a haunted look in their eye when you ask them for help on Core homework? Upperclassmen, curious why the baby frosh next door have math homework due on Tuesday nights and also won’t shut up about lizards and beetles? To answer all your questions about the new (and old) Core, I decided to cross the generational divide and interview both my fellow frosh and the occasional unsuspecting upperclassman about the new Core curriculum. These interviews took place at a variety of times and locations, including impromptu lunch conversations, Saturday at 7 a.m. over Zoom, and the day before this article was due. I asked students for their thoughts on the overall purpose of the Core and about specific changes to the Core curriculum.

First, I’ll provide some background on the key changes to Core. On May 8, 2020, the faculty approved plans to modify the Core curriculum to allow students to take a four-course load in their first two years at Mudd, and remain on track to graduate in four years. Some of the changes to reduce courseload were implemented for the Class of 2025. They began by removing Math 82, Differential Equations, from Core for all students in the Class of 2025 and onward, although it remains a required course for many majors. They also removed the requirement to take an elective each semester in the first year.

This year, more changes were implemented starting with the Class of 2026 in order to further reduce student stress and improve the cohesiveness of Core. The option to take an elective in the first semester was removed. Major changes were also made to the chemistry and biology curriculum: chemistry was reduced from a two-course sequence to a single course, and the Core biology class was updated to focus on climate change rather than virology. Furthermore, students now take the accompanying lab for chemistry and biology in the same semester they take the respective course, instead of potentially a semester before or after.

Non-frosh have a variety of perspectives on the purpose of Core, but they all agree it’s a vital and transformative part of the Mudd experience. Sophomore Shreya Balaji stated that “the purpose of a Core curriculum, generally, is for students to get a better understanding of what that particular university has to offer.” Furthermore, she observed that because Mudd only offers majors in a small range of subjects, it can actually introduce every one of those subjects in Core. This allows students to make informed decisions when choosing majors. She also observed that Core “[gives] the students a general subset of skills that will be useful in their life, no matter what fields of study they wind up in.”

Senior engineering major Kaya Lane echoed this sentiment: “in terms of having a good foundation, I think [Core] did really well. Especially as a general engineer, it’s important to know lots of different areas. And nothing is ever as pigeonholed as it can sometimes seem at school.” However, she also remarked that the Core experience is far from homogenous, since students who come from more competitive high schools offering rigorous curriculums and advanced courses often have an academic advantage over their peers.

In contrast, sophomore Kishore Rajesh argued that the actual material taught in Core wasn’t the main point, especially for those who ended up not majoring in those subjects. Instead, they said, “I don’t think it’s the material that’s important. I think it’s the fact that you have these new concepts and new material that everyone’s struggling with — it creates a sense of camaraderie. [Core], in my opinion, [is] only to build camaraderie and a sense of community, which I think is really important at Mudd.”

Freshman Grey Karis-Sconyers concurred, mentioning that the purpose of Core was to build a collaborative culture and deconstruct competitive mindsets and learning habits that students may have developed during high school. They suggested that Core’s level of difficulty is intended to encourage students to collaborate, saying “[Core is] built so nobody can possibly get through it alone.”

Both sophomores also commented on the usefulness of Writ 1, with Shreya specifically saying that, “the writing requirement is important because we’re such STEM-focused individuals that sometimes it can be really easy to get caught up in the STEM and not think about the implications of our work, and how we would present that to people.”

When discussing the changes to Core, many students brought up Chemistry, which was condensed from two classes — Chemistry 23a (3 credits) in the fall and Chemistry 23b (1.5 credits) in the spring — into one 4-credit course, Chemistry 42. Both Kishore and Shreya supported this change, feeling that it made the Core curriculum more balanced and manageable. All interviewees also agreed with the decision to push Chemistry, the earliest Core class, back from 7:40 a.m. to 8:10 a.m. and the decision to schedule biology and chemistry labs to align with their respective lectures. Recalling their experience in Chemistry Lab as part of the old Core, Kishore said, “I feel like I would have appreciated it more if I knew what a fuel cell was before building the fuel cell.”

The class that has changed the most, however, is Biology 46, which in earlier years was named Biology 52, and focused on virology and disease progression, but has now been redesigned to focus on ecology and climate change. Shreya remarked on her own experience taking Biology 52 during the Covid-19 pandemic: “It’s gotten more uncomfortable to talk about disease progression in class, knowing that there are so many individuals that are suffering and have passed away from COVID. Students having that weight on them while also trying to focus on a core academic class duringasemesterthat’snotpass/fail—becausewe didn’t have the option of taking Biology 52 pass/ fail — that’s really a lot.” Biology 46 centers on climate change, studying how it affects organisms at a cellular level and ecosystems at large.

While the changes to the science courses’ curricula and scheduling were the most prominent aspects of the new Core, there were also smaller changes to the Core math curriculum. For example, the asynchronous Complex Lab portion of Math 19, which serves as a crash course in arithmetic, algebra, and graphing with complex numbers, is a new addition this year. Shreya, whose class year didn’t take Complex Lab, thought it was important to teach this material to any students who may be unfamiliar with it: “[The addition of Complex Lab to Math 19] is really important, because in E79, for example, we’re dealing with a lot of complex numbers. And ultimately, it winds up being easier if you already learned some of this stuff.” She also noted that removing Differential Equations from the math Core could make E79 more difficult, since E79 involves some differential equations. Although E79 does teach the basics of differential equations, additional exposure to it can make the class easier. She also argued that Differential Equations is applicable to most majors, including engineering, chemistry, and biology. Generally, students agreed on the importance of a strong mathematics Core curriculum, citing the applicability of math to all the majors.

When students were asked what changes they would have proposed if given the chance, there were a variety of responses. Shreya requested bringing back Differential Equations to the math Core curriculum. Kaya suggested sequencing E79 earlier in the Core curriculum: explaining, “There is only one engineering core class. And there’s only one bio and one CS class too, but those are all in the first year — so giving people exposure to engineering early on would be nice. I don’t think the concepts [in E79] are too hard for freshmen to understand. You don’t really need any prior classes for it.”

Kishore advocated for a Core curriculum that better balances all subjects, noting that computer science has three credits in total, chemistry has five, biology has four, physics has six and a half, and engineering has four, with most subjects having a course and an accompanying lab or practicum. They suggested adding another computer science credit and perhaps lowering the courseload and credits dedicated toward some of the sciences.

Regarding the overall approach towards Core, Shreya felt “the administration is honestly trying to improve and evolve the Core curriculum so that it fits with that current generation of students … if we even look at my year, 2025, versus the Core for the Class of 2023, for example, or the Class of 2022, you can see how much the Core curriculum has evolved, making sure that it’s the best possible fit for the incoming class.” Overall, the interviewees felt that the changes made to the Core curriculum would close critical gaps in student learning (such as the Math 19 Complex Lab, and the alignment of science labs with their lectures), while also making Core more manageable and balanced.

I also asked my non-frosh interviewees what advice they would give to current freshmen. Kishore told us to take advantage of pass/fail to have fun and get acclimated to college. They also urged us to work with friends on homework, and assured us: “Don’t stress, Core will be over eventually. So I keep telling myself at least.” Shreya extended the suggestion beyond just Core, saying, “Don’t worry about your grades too much, it’s more about getting a good foundation. Of course everyone’s going to care about grades, but try not to let it take away from having a social life, and being a part of clubs, and being involved in the school in other ways.” Other outtakes from my interviews included much discussion of why Special Relativity is anti-rhino and why the new biology class is actually just a cool podcast about lizards and bugs, and much attempted prying about who was the best interviewee.

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