Co-majors offer students interdisciplinary breadth, depth

David Hammer, professor of physics and astronomy and chair of the education department, sits in his office on Mar. 6, 2018. Ray Bernoff / The Tufts Daily

There are currently five courses of study that can be categorized as co-majors, according to the Registrar of the Schools of Arts and Sciences and Engineering. These co-majors consist of biomedical sciences, biotechnology, education, environmental studies (ENVS) and science, technology and society (STS).

The most recent Tufts Fact Book stated that out of 6,886 graduates from the classes of 2012 to 2016, there were 13 students majoring in biomedical sciences, 20 in biotechnology and 158 in ENVS. Co-majors, unlike primary majors, must be pursued in conjunction with another major. Faculty members interviewed by the Daily agreed that the experience of pursuing one of the co-majors with a complementary major is invaluable for students.

Environmental Studies

The oldest of the five co-majors is ENVS, which was started in 1984 by the late Professor of Biology Norton Nickerson, who became the program’s first director.

Colin Orians, current director of the ENVS Program and professor of biology, explained Nickerson’s rationale.

“I believe environmental studies was originally designed to be a co-major, rather than a standalone one,” Orians said. “Environmental studies is really broad, so the goal was to create a major that would add some breadth to the depth of your other, more singular major.”

As recently as fall 2012, ENVS only had three tracks: environment and technology, environment and society, and environmental science. However, when Orians started as program director in 2010, he initiated a revamp of the curriculum to add more rigor and foster a closer community.

“Our goal in the last eight years has been to build up the co-major so that students feel they can get both breadth and depth within the major, and if they add it to their other major, they can have yet another perspective and even be more competitive for jobs, graduate school, you name it,” Orians said.

Two of the three original tracks no longer exist. There are now six tracks: environmental science; sustainability, policy and equity; environmental communications; food systems, nutrition and the environment; environmental humanities; and a self-designed track. These expanded tracks allow students more flexibility and enable them to pursue the field of environmental studies in greater depth, according to Orians.

Even though ENVS is a co-major, Orians has found that many students consider it their primary major.

“There are a significant number of students who declare environmental studies before they declare their other major,” Orians said. “There’s no one type of student, but a lot of our majors come to Tufts knowing they want to major in environmental studies, so during their first two years they try and figure out what they want to pair it with.”

There will soon be a vote to determine if ENVS will offer a primary, standalone major, according to Orians.

“A lot of the process in the last year has been meeting with students and faculty to figure out what needs to be different for environmental studies to also be a standalone major,” Orians said. “The [primary] major will be more intensive, but now students who come here knowing they want to do environmental studies can really dive into the subject.”

Alexa Bishopric, a sophomore double majoring in political science and ENVS, is in favor of the creation of a primary ENVS major.

“I think to qualify the environmental studies major as a second major makes it seem like it is not as legitimate as other majors,” Bishopric told the Daily in an email. “The environmental studies major requires just as much, if not more than my political science major due to the internship requirement, and yet it does not have the same validation.”

However, the creation of the primary major will not mean the disappearance of the co-major, as Orians believes there are still many reasons to double major.

“One of the downsides of having a co-major is that you cannot pair it with another co-major. So until community health became a standalone major, students could not pursue this natural coupling,” Orians said. “However, I would encourage students to consider pursing the co-major because I do think there’s a reason to dive into a discipline and get that depth and that breadth.”

Biotechnology

In 1997, 13 years after the creation of ENVS, the biotechnology co-major became a part of Tufts’ curriculum, according to Emmanuel Tzanakakis, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering. Tzanakakis, who became the program’s faculty advisor last summer, explained why the program was brought into existence.

“The biotechnology program was established to meet the needs for training in this area,” Tzanakakis said. “We see an increased number of students going into the field of biotechnology, and they’d like to be prepared for such opportunities.”

The biotechnology program has been designed with two tracks: a science track for liberal arts undergraduates and an engineering track for engineering undergraduates. Tzanakakis explained that these tracks allow flexibility depending on which school a student is in and which primary major they are pursuing.

According to Tzanakakis, most students who take up a biotechnology co-major largely come from the hard sciences and engineering.

“There are students double majoring in biochemistry, biology, chemical engineering and mechanical engineering among others, so there’s definitely a mix between the two schools,” he said. “It’s a great field to co-major in. It increases students’ marketability and also enriches their training, which employers really value.”

Currently, there are no plans to make biotechnology into a standalone major, but it is something Tzanakakis said could be re-assessed in the future.

“Making biotechnology a major right from the start would require much more work and entail much more risk,” he said. “We’d like to turn it into something bigger if there’s a full-fledged need, but at this point there hasn’t been a move to make it into a separate major.”

Education

Starting in fall 2015, the Department of Education introduced an education co-major, in addition to a minor that was already offered.

Chair of the Department of Education David Hammer noted that members of the Tufts Community Union Senate led the push to create a major in education, but the department made the decision to make it a co-major rather than a primary one.

Education is more an area of interest than a particular discipline. We thought undergraduates should have some depth and experience that they can bring to their education classes,” Hammer said. “Let’s not just have students have an education in education, but also bring to the table what they learn from their primary major.”

However, like ENVS, Hammer noted that just because education is not designated as a primary major, that doesn’t mean some students don’t think of it as one.

“We actually don’t think of education as a secondary major because for some students it may be their main interest, but they do need to have that accompanying major,” he said.

With the upcoming vote for the creation of a primary ENVS major, Hammer sees the topic of education becoming a primary major potentially occurring, but he believes it’s still best suited as a co-major.

“My argument is wanting people to experience a discipline so they can experience both depth and breadth,” Hammer said. “Co-majors do a nice job of complementing primary majors.”

Currently, according to Hammer, students co-majoring can chose between one of two concentrations: educational studies or teaching and learning. However, this is likely to change in the near future with an upcoming faculty vote to change the structure of the co-major.

“We realized there’s a whole spectrum of interests and people thinking of education in all kinds of ways, and for us to suppose we knew which track to set up for these requirements seemed unnecessary,” Hammer said. “We want students to have the freedom to construct the program that works for them and their interests, with the help of a faculty member. That way, we really get to know our students.”

Hammer said there has yet to be a substantial number of graduates with a major in education, but one former student is currently enrolled in a doctoral program at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy.

Science, Technology and Society

The university’s newest co-major, STS, has been around for two years. Associate Professor of Mathematics and STS Program Director Moon Duchin explained that the program came about as a result of a faculty-driven initiative that came about when the Department of Anthropology was interviewing candidates for positions in the anthropology of science and technology.

“Going to those talks made me realize the [anthropology] department did a great job of reaching out around the university and finding people who had an interest in history, philosophy, anthropology of science,” she said. “A lot of us realized how many faculty we already had doing really great work in STS.”

According to Duchin, STS has helped bring people together and, as an interdisciplinary program, draws from faculty and student interest across different departments.

“We’ve got really good attendance at our events, particularly our weekly lunch seminar. It’s a good time to see who are the community of people interested in the field,” Duchin said. “We have people who do the co-major together with a range of other fields. We have a number of math, anthropology and art dual-degrees. We’re very satisfied that we’re drawing people from all around the university.”

Currently there are three tracks of study: bodies, health and medicine; science and the state; and mathematics and modeling. Duchin sees potential for growth.

“One way I could see us growing is building out more tracks that are tailored to both our faculty specialties and our students’ interests,” she said. “There’s already been some talk about an ‘art and making’ track, and that’s the kind of thing I’m excited about developing. We’ve even been asked to consider a graduate program.”

Like Orians, Tzanakakis and Hammer, Duchin believes that not only does STS work well as a co-major, but some students also consider STS their “intellectual home.”

“Going from a co-major to a primary major could make a lot of sense, but I actually like the fact that STS is adding value to a lot of other disciplinary modes of study by breadth and critique,” Duchin said. “I think it’s really good, intellectually, for our students.”


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