Illustration by Luna Lopez

DataViz: Exploring Study Away Course Diversity

How many courses can Biology or Music students take at NYU’s global sites? How can disparities between different majors be resolved? We explore global education at NYU Abu Dhabi through the study away course database.

Sep 19, 2021

Global education is an essential component of the NYU Abu Dhabi experience, and study away semesters are where this is most prominently seen. Students can spend a semester or two at any of 14 global sites, from Buenos Aires to Sydney: traveling, absorbing culture and elevating their liberal arts education.
Or so the pitch goes.
As Computer Science majors, we never really saw this diversity in action. For us, there was only ever one choice for our semester abroad: New York. Not only was the main campus by far the most expansive in terms of course offerings, it was also — or so it seemed — the only place where we could take advanced CS electives.
This got us thinking — how many choices do NYUAD students really have when it comes to study away sites and courses?
To investigate this question, we decided to gather data on course equivalencies across majors and study away sites. While we understand that academic considerations may not be every student’s first priority when selecting a study away site, they are undoubtedly an important factor for many of us. In fact, the university itself encourages careful thought about course selection: the study away essays ask all students to justify their course choices and relate them to their academic pathways.
We scraped all the courses from the Study Away Course Equivalency pages on the Student Portal and matched them with their respective majors and minors. We excluded courses that only count for cores from the old Core Curriculum.
We then attempted to determine which semester each course was most recently offered using Schedge, a student-developed Albert API. While it would have been ideal to find the semesters for all courses, we had to contend with the limitations of Albert, which only displays courses offered as far back as Summer 2020. Therefore, throughout our analysis, we consider Summer 2020 the dividing line between “old” and “new” courses.
We must also mention that the Covid-19 pandemic brought a precipitous decrease in the number of study away course offerings, affecting all of our “recent” data. Regardless, we will keep our focus on recent courses, as the old numbers are too skewed by courses that are no longer offered.
After splitting the courses based on recency, we used the Majors and Minors guide on the NYUAD website to determine the academic division each course belongs to. Multidisciplinary and Core courses were assigned their own categories for the sake of inclusive analysis.
STEM vs. Non-STEM Equivalency Courses Across Sites
First, we wanted to answer a generalized question: do STEM majors have fewer study away site options compared to non-STEM majors?
This visualization shows the number of recently offered equivalent courses across study away sites for the two categories. A darker color indicates that more courses are offered by that particular site. We define STEM as majors within the Science or Engineering divisions and non-STEM as majors within the Social Sciences or Arts and Humanities divisions. Multidisciplinary majors were excluded from this graph.
As expected, the United States (which includes the New York, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. sites) offers the most courses for all majors. However, when the map transitions from Non-STEM to STEM, we see that most sites (except for New York) become lighter in color. Two sites (Buenos Aires and Madrid) disappear from the map entirely. This confirms the popular belief that STEM majors have a less diverse selection of global courses to choose from than other majors. Biology majors, for example, can only take major electives from New York or Shanghai.
But why do STEM majors have fewer study away options? We spoke with Bryan Waterman, the Vice Provost of Undergraduate Academic Development about our findings.
“I’ve seen global [education] develop from what was originally kind of a haphazard and accidental collection of sites,” Waterman said. Back in the day, most of the global sites’ administration was handled locally outside of NYU’s central control — thus, departments in New York had little say in what was taught and where. “We don’t have the reach to be able to say, ‘we’re going to create all of the classes that our students take while they’re away.’ It’s more like a negotiation,” explained Waterman.
As a result, there are many practical and institutional reasons for the disparity between STEM and non-STEM course offerings today. A practical reason is that not every site has the capacity to host STEM courses, which often feature expensive equipment, laboratory work and other specialized requirements that do not appear in many non-STEM classes.
A more institutional reason is the existence of study abroad pathways, where majors are linked with a list of recommended global sites. According to Waterman, “[these] provided a way for us to say, ‘we don’t have to focus on 16 sites; this program just has to worry about the courses that are offered at one site, and then they can have a closer connection to it.’”
So how does the data back up these existing pathways?
Available Study Away Sites per Major
This bubble graph shows all the study away sites offering courses for each major. The filters on the right of the graph can be used to select one or more majors or minors, to choose a certain division or to filter out recently offered courses. For instance, if we filter for recently offered Chemistry courses, we can see that New York, Shanghai, Sydney, London and Tel Aviv have all offered Chemistry courses since Summer 2020. However, the Chemistry program recommends that students study away in New York, Shanghai, Sydney or Tel Aviv, with no mention of London.
We invite students to play around with this graph and explore the available study away sites for their own majors, as well as the number of courses offered at each site.
The treemap below offers a site-based overview of equivalent courses for those who wish to fit their academic goals to the site, rather than the other way around.
Global Sites Courses Treemap
Made with Flourish
The treemap shows the spread of equivalent course offerings among different divisions and majors at each site. We can see that NYU New York offers the largest number of courses, followed by Shanghai, London, Florence and Paris. A general trend we can see is that Arts and Humanities is usually the most represented division in most sites.
Notable exceptions include NYU London and Sydney, where Science is the largest division because several Psychology courses are offered in both sites. Zooming in on NYU Florence, it appears that Music is the most represented major; interestingly, however, Florence is not listed on the Music program’s list of recommended study away sites.
Core Course Categories Featured at Global Sites
Made with Flourish
So far, we have focused our discussion on major (and minor) courses. But another aspect of global education that deserves mention is the Core Curriculum. NYUAD has a uniquely designed Core that contains four encompassing categories — meaning finding equivalencies at other sites is a difficult endeavor.
Regardless, Waterman looks at the Core as an opportunity to offer students more options wherever they go and give them the opportunity to fulfill non-major requirements. “All of the sites should have all of the areas of the Core represented,” clarified the Vice Provost. As it shows in the pie chart above, many of the sites do indeed feature courses from most Core categories. Those that do not can generally be explained by the pandemic and the steep drop of course offerings it brought.
It should be mentioned that our data-centric approach means that we have looked at the course catalogue quantitatively, without exploring the significance of individual courses. The latter view is especially important in the Core, as the university is deliberately trying to enhance the cultural understanding of students through its global Core course offerings. “If you’re living in Berlin, you can study about Berlin, and you’re going to have a better time in Berlin — that’s the theory,” said Waterman.
What does the future hold for the network?
“The next level will be to have global curricular development,” suggested Waterman, “where all of the committees who run curricula on the different portal campuses plan a slate of courses together that have legibility in the different programs.” This would simplify the equivalency process and allow for a greater, more diverse set of courses to be offered to everybody.
Overall, we can say that while significant course disparities exist between majors, and between STEM and non-STEM fields, there are clear reasons for the state of global education at NYUAD today. Starting from spontaneous opportunities around the world, NYU has built an expansive global network in which the portal campuses (including Abu Dhabi) have a strong voice.
Máté Hekfusz and Reem Hazim are Data Editors. Email them at
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