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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

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    Course Registration Problems Surface

    It’s that time of the semester again! Students scramble at their computers to register for their next semester classes before it becomes too late. For some students, this experience is unremarkable, however, for many others, especially those with late enrollment appointments, course registration can be a nightmare.

    Due to limited seat capacity, larger courses, particularly those that include a laboratory portion, are the first to fill up. ‘It’s frustrating to have to wait so long to be able to register, only to find that the classes that you want are already gone,’ said Manisha Chitkara, second year SBU student.

    As a result of the increasing demand for a college education as well as Stony Brook University’s good financial value and improving reputation, the enrollment numbers have been steadily increasing in recent years, according to Daniel Kane Gillespie, Ph.D, Assistant Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. The youngest member of the Association of American Universities (AAU), Stony Brook University boasts a 90% retention rate for first and second year students. A consequent crunch for space and competition for university resources has been felt particularly by the science departments.

    According to Joseph Lauher, PhD, professor and undergraduate program director of chemistry at Stony Brook University, in 2006, nearly 17% of 13,500 incoming full-time freshmen (2170 students) enrolled in general chemistry while 20 years ago, 13% of 9500 incoming freshmen (1250 students) enrolled. The small percentage increase actually amounts to approximately 920 more students signing up for the same classes.

    A similar disparity was noted with respect to organic chemistry students. According to Lauher, ‘We have had two separate lectures for organic chemistry for two years now, and the students still barely fit.’

    Trying to find space to house the numbers of students taking these larger chemistry courses has become a chronic problem for the Chemistry Department.

    A similar problem plagues the chemistry lab courses. With five organic chemistry labs, with about 126 available spots, only 58% of all students taking organic chemistry lecture for 2006 have the opportunity to take the lab course. ‘We would like lab enrollments for organic chemistry to be at 70%,’ says a hopeful Lauher.

    Fixing many of the enrollment and resource problems like the ones seen in the chemistry department will take time. ‘It’s not an easy fix,’ admits Michael White, PhD, professor and chair of the department of chemistry.

    ‘This is a combination of a personnel and resource issue,’ explains Robert Kerber, Ph.D., distinguished teaching professor and associate chair of the department of chemistry. ‘Larger lecture halls, more laboratory space, and possibly a larger faculty and graduate TA base’ would be helpful in combating the current enrollment issues, continues Kerber.

    It is important to note, however, that hiring new faculty or attracting more graduate students to help teach organic chemistry, for example, cannot provide a long term solution. The upper level undergraduate and graduate chemistry courses are taught by the same faculty and should command the same amount of consideration. ‘We cannot sustain an unbalanced attention to freshman and second year courses,’ explains White.

    Progress however, has already been made. Summer and winter offering of the general and organic laboratory courses have helped ease the tremendous demand and have allowed the chemistry department to ‘cope with the situation,’ remarks Kerber. Also, full renovations of the Old Chemistry building and the first floor of the Chemistry building have been planned to begin next year. The rehabilitation of these buildings will result in brand new teaching laboratories for general chemistry students featuring a fume hood for every two students. It will not, however, result in increased laboratory teaching space.

    Physical and monetary resources are not solely responsible for the increasingly tightening course enrollment. Student interest is also an important factor in anticipating enrollment numbers and determining demand for all the disciplines offered on campus. There has been a ‘pendulum swing of demand,’ noted Peter Baigent, Ph.D., vice president for student affairs and associate provost for enrollment and retention management.

    The mid 1990’s was marked by an increase in computer science enrollments. Dubbed the ‘computer science bubble’ by Lauher, this period was also characterized by a decrease in demand for some of the chemistry courses. The challenge, according to Rick Gatteau, Ph.D., director of academic advising, has been trying to predict course demand by predicting student interest trends.

    Pre-medical students represent one of the largest academic groups on campus. ‘If I ask my students to raise their hands if they are ‘pre-med,’ 95% of the class responds,’ explains Roy Lacey, Ph.D., professor of nuclear chemistry. ‘The demand for the sciences is tremendous,’ he continues. ‘Other institutions’ similar in size to Stony Brook University show ‘dramatic differences in student interest,’ says Baigent. With the science focus of Stony Brook University being so strong, ‘broadening a student’s curriculum’ and ‘advertising other majors’ is an important step, suggests Gatteau. If students have the opportunity to learn about other available majors at events like the recent ‘Major Event,’ they can make more informed decisions about their career path.

    ‘This is a very complex issue,’ says Gatteau. ‘It’s important to approach this with a needs-wants perspective,’ he continues. Students placed on waiting lists for certain courses and who also need them as prerequisites for other courses or as degree requirements have priority for admission at the start of each semester.

    ‘An emphasis is placed on student needs,’ says Baigent. For larger classes, a number of seats are always held aside outside of the waiting list for this purpose. ‘We have an obligation to degree students,’ says Gatteau.

    For students worrying about being rejected from registering for a particular class, there is plenty of hope. Most students placed on waiting lists are eventually accommodated by the semester’s start. ‘If a student is in need of a class for a degree requirement, every effort is taken to ensure that he is accommodated,’ explains Gatteau.

    The current system of course registration gives priority to students with the greatest number of credits. As students progress through their university career, they will all have the opportunity to be among the first to register for the classes they need. However, a ‘hybrid model,’ according to Gatteau, that implements both credit based and degree requirement based systems would be ideal.

    ‘No university course enrollment system is perfect,’ concludes Gatteau. If only a small portion of the last thousand enrolling students don’t get the classes they want to enroll in, it is still a victory from an advising perspective.

    In addition to trying to increase class sizes and the frequency of availability of certain courses, curriculum changes have been made to try and relieve students from being foundered in a particular course sequence, according to Baigent. For example in the mathematics department, students can move backwards and forwards through the sequence of available courses. ‘There are different course pathways to satisfy the same requirements,’ explains Gillespie.

    Similar changes have been made in the Chemistry and Biology departments. An introductory chemistry course (CHE 129) has been recently created from which students can jump directly to second semester general chemistry (CHE132) without having to take CHE 131. Also, there are plans to remove the introductory, BIO 150 from the biology curriculum in an effort to create more lab space for larger biology courses such as BIO 201, 202, 203.

    The desire of all faculty and members of the administration, according to Lacey, is to provide students with the courses they
    need to graduate ‘on time, with a full education.’ Trying to ‘balance between availability and quality’ of courses is key, he continues. All they can hope to do, says Lacey, is ‘keep pace and stay in line with the changes’ in student interest and course enrollment fluctuations. This university boasts for this current semester, fall 2006, the most seat availability the university has ever had.

    ‘Is any university perfect?’ asks Baigent in an effort to summarize the current situation facing many of the undergraduate students at Stony Brook and the ‘heroic efforts’ taken by the university to address them. ‘It is impossible to accommodate all students in such a dynamic setting,’ he continues. And with 85% of first year students, last year in fall of 2005, satisfied with the job the university is doing, this is still a ‘good news story,’ according to Baigent.

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