Graphic by Joaquin Kunkel

Are Falcons Afraid of Sciences?

Why the demanding nature of STEM prerequisites might be putting students off these subjects.

Nov 12, 2016

We pride ourselves on our diversity, but because NYU Abu Dhabi students come from all corners of the world we have also received very different styles of secondary education. ToK, EE, UWC — I had to do a lot of Googling in my first semester. This presents a challenge for incoming freshmen who have received different levels of preparation in foundational subjects such as math and English. NYUAD tries to account for this discrepancy by administering placement tests that assign freshmen to courses that suit their levels of preparation.
A prior knowledge of math is crucial for science, technology, engineering and math majors. At NYUAD, students who study Biology, Chemistry, Physics or Engineering need to take Foundations of Science as well as Multivariable Calculus. The math placement test given during Marhaba week sorts incoming freshmen into different math courses depending on their results. Mathematical Functions, Vector Mathematics and Foundations of Mathematics are courses designed for students who are not yet prepared to take Calculus with Applications, the course recommended for a STEM student’s first semester.
However, as of NYUAD’s 2016-2017 Bulletin, Calculus with Applications is a prerequisite for Multivariable Calculus, which itself is a co-requisite for FoS. Thus, incoming freshmen are now expected to start FoS in their second semester, unless they place into Multivariable Calculus. Given that FoS is a prerequisite for most STEM electives, as well as the demanding number of requirements for STEM majors, students placed in lower-level math courses may have to sacrifice a semester abroad or take summer courses in order to keep up. Sophomore Hala Aqel, who is majoring in Biology, was surprised by these limitations.
“I took FoS in the spring [of my freshman year]. … I came to learn that you have to finish FoS before you study abroad, meaning that me starting it in [freshman] spring immediately means that I can’t study away sophomore spring because I’ll be taking FoS 5 and 6,” she said.
Previously, FoS was taught at NYU Shanghai, and students who needed to finish FoS could still do so while studying abroad there. However, NYU Shanghai recently changed their STEM curricula, and the school no longer offers courses that are directly equivalent to FoS at NYUAD. This means that many STEM students, especially those who start FoS in their second or third semester, cannot take part in an exploratory semester abroad at a site like Florence or Buenos Aires that do not offer equivalent science classes. Ultimately, the options for STEM majors are limited to New York or Shanghai, the only sites that offer enough advanced science and math electives.
Attrition from STEM students is a persistent problem across higher education, with approximately 40 percent of STEM students choosing to pursue another type of degree or failing to obtain a degree altogether. University STEM programs are notoriously laborious, tiresome and abstract, which can leave some students feeling uninspired. NYUAD’s science and math curricula are designed to allow students to explore other areas of interest through Core classes and general electives in social science, humanities or the arts. However, extensive math requirements and limited study abroad options can be powerful deterrents. Personally, when I didn’t place into Calculus as a freshman, I was overwhelmed by the implications of starting FoS late and decided to major in Psychology, one of only two majors in NYUAD’s Science department that do not require FoS. For Aqel, the decision to continue studying Biology came from self-knowledge and determination.
“I was never particularly artistic, I was never particularly good at writing — I was decent at both, I could hold my own, but [neither was] something I would excel at. Science… was what I knew, I knew that I could do it,” she said.
She also shared the limitations she experienced.
“I was definitely angry when all these things came out … that you have to take [FoS] consecutively, you can’t study abroad … but I knew there wasn’t anything I could really do about it. I thought, well, this is the path that I have chosen, so even though these obstacles are in my way, I’m just going to get through it,” she concluded.
I considered these limitations myself as a freshman set on studying Biology or Chemistry. Not being able to start FoS in my first semester meant that I took Literature, Anthropology and Arab Crossroads courses instead. Even though they were just electives and cores, I encountered so many ideas and learned so much that those courses were invaluable to me. Following the strict schedules of math courses, FoS and advanced science electives would have barred me from further exploration. I realized I would rather take an art class about nomads that challenged me to create sculptures and study dadaism — and really push myself outside self-imposed limits — than suffer through physics labs that neither excited nor motivated me. I certainly take no issue with those who do pursue FoS, but my first semester made me step back and consider what I really wanted out of an NYUAD education. Regardless of each student’s decision, that consideration is crucial for STEM and non-STEM majors alike.
Annie Bauer is Deputy Copy Chief. Email her at
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