Harvey Mudd’s new core curriculum cuts courses and adds new Impact course

An infographic of Mudd Core Credit Classes Changes.
(Crystal Yang • The Student Life)

After three years of planning, Harvey Mudd College will adopt a new Core curriculum to decrease workload and stress for first-years and sophomores. The curriculum will likely not take effect until at least fall 2022.

Currently, students take 12 Core classes and three labs over their first three semesters, while the new curriculum will require 10 Core classes and three labs over four semesters. Students will also have the option to take Humanities, Social Sciences and the Arts and tech electives beginning in the second semester.

The new requirements were drafted to “increase joy of learning, reflection, mastery, and retention by allowing students to take a four-course load in the first four semesters, while still being on track to graduate in four years,” the announcement said.

The changes include dropping requirements for a first-year chemistry course, Electromagnetic Theory and Optics, and Differential Equations, both during second-year fall. Additionally, first-years cannot take elective classes during their first semester of college.

The new curriculum, called “Four Courses with Optional Electivity,” adds a new Impact course focusing on “the impact of [students’] work on society,” faculty chair Tom Donnelly said in a May 29 email to the Mudd student body.

The new Core curriculum is the latest effort to improve students’ academic experience. Last fall, Mudd piloted a change to its math curriculum, dropping Probability and Statistics and combining the remaining half-courses into three full-semester courses.

In 2015, the Wabash Report evaluated the impact of the Mudd curriculum, workload and honor code, and it found that the “workload was challenging and, more importantly, unending.” 

After a copy of the report was leaked to TSL in March 2017, protests erupted over the high levels of stress and the student workload. The protests resulted in two days of canceled classes and promises to modify the school’s Core curriculum.

In the years since, administration and faculty have been gathering student input and working to address concerns about the Core curriculum.

“What we heard from students when we did surveying at the beginning is that they wanted time for reflection, they wanted time to make connections between things, to think about the impact of their work, and to tie it all together,” engineering professor Elizabeth Orwin said.

Course changes addressed key issues within Core, students say

Some students say the removal of Electromagnetic Theory and Optics from the third-semester curriculum will have a significant impact on the Core curriculum experience.

“I truly think that sophomore fall is one of your worst times of your experience at Mudd, and it sounds like they definitely addressed that,” Savanna Beans HM ’22 said.

Phousawanh Peaungvongpakdy HM ’22 agreed that the two removed courses were extremely challenging for him. However, he hopes that some elements of those classes will still appear in courses for HMC students later.

“[Electromagnetic Theory and Optics] and [Differential Equations] is to some extent — even if you didn’t use them — they were classes that helped you with problem solving,” Peaungvongpakdy said.

Beans noted that adjusting first-year biology and chemistry so students are taking the course and its corresponding lab simultaneously will be helpful, as students are “making sense of what [they’re] doing in class and immediately applying in lab.”

However, restricting first-years from taking an elective in fall semester raised concerns for Matthew LeMay HM ’21, who is active in the Claremont Joint Music Program.

“If I had not taken [Introductory Music Theory] when I took it, it would’ve been a lot harder for me to be involved in music as I was,” LeMay said.

Some students believe that the new Core is a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done to improve student well-being.

“I am worried that what they are not doing is changing the culture — that it is normal to be constantly sleep deprived and super stressed out,” Eva Pronovost HM ’23 said. “I do like that there are some guardrails in place for the first semester or so. But they should go beyond just changing the Core and try to change the work-life balance at Mudd.”

‘Impact’ course subject still undecided

Discussions are still continuing on the exact topic and structure of the Impact course, which aims to address “the intersection of STEM and society.”

“We’ve had discussions around climate change and science and society, and students have expressed an interest in social justice topics,” Orwin said.

RJ Barnes HM ’23 hopes that the Impact course will be able to show why the Core curriculum is important for everyone to take.

“The Impact course could also be used to emphasize why the Core classes we are taking are important for all of the majors,” Barnes said.

Beans said that the Impact course can help create a focused course curriculum on science, technology, engineering and math’s societal impact. While professors generally start off the semester by talking about the impact of their work on society, Beans said, “more often than not, that impact gets lost as you go throughout the course,” and the purpose of the class is lost.

Core Implementation Committee to continue Core revision process, estimated fall 2022 rollout

Faculty members from all departments contributed to reforming the Core curriculum.

“The faculty is concerned with balancing the rigor and content of the education with student well-being and health,” Bill Alves, a music professor, said.

While the changes free up space in students’ schedules to take more elective classes, they do not reduce the total number of credits required to graduate. Currently, Mudd students must take 16 credits per semester, or the equivalent of 5.33 courses, on average, to graduate on time. Students at other Claremont Colleges can complete their degrees with an average of four classes per semester, according to class catalogues. 

Professor Katherine Van Heuvelen, a co-chair of the Core Review Committee, said further credit changes would be necessary.

The new Core will require us to either change the number of credits required to graduate or change how we assign credits to Core classes,” Van Heuvelen said in an email to TSL. “This is an open question that has not yet been decided. But the faculty is committed to a Core that will keep students on track to graduate.”

The faculty voted in favor of Four Courses with Optional Electivity on May 8, and the planning process was passed off to the Core Implementation Committee, led by Orwin and Alves.

However, complications due to the coronavirus pandemic have pushed the rollout of the new Core curriculum back by a year.

“Although we are going to do our best, it looks unlikely that the new Core will roll out completely in fall 2021,” Alves said. “A year ago, that was our intention, but things have been upset since then. The full Core might not be revised until fall 2022.”

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