Recent growth in UD science majors creates need for additional resources

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Therese Phan examines a slide through a microscope in a biology lab. Photo by Francesca Norman.

During a  recent Board of Trustees meeting, a steep graph displayed on a slide showed that the number of science majors at the University of Dallas has nearly tripled over the last ten years, from 137 students in 2005 to 336 in 2017.

This increase in science students has taken a toll on the science departments at large, said Dr. Sally Hicks, chair of physics and interim dean of Constantin College.

Computer science has more than tripled, physics has grown and biology is at an all-time high, according to Hicks. The result is an overall need for more equipment, more class sections, and more teachers.

“More labs are needed in all areas at all levels,” said Hicks. “There is an additional need for laboratory supplies, equipment, instructors and student TAs.”

Endowments help fund these areas, including the O’Hara, Marcus and Cowan endowments. However, the science departments are continually searching for more grants and funding opportunities, especially to support the growth of UD’s science students, according to Hicks.

Besides a general increase in STEM enrollment across many universities, Hicks believes that science students are attracted to UD in part because of the research opportunities and the diversity of other classes offered.

“[Something] I think UD uniquely offers is the Core curriculum coupled to science majors that require research,” said Hicks.

“It just happened,” said Interim President John Plotts. “I think it’s a tribute to the science department and the quality of professors in the sciences. They frequently get overlooked at this university, but you can see the growth.”

UD has been successful at obtaining undergraduate research positions, which attracts very high quality students, according to Hicks. Students want to do research, go to conferences, and to present their work.

According to the Oct. 19 presentation at the Board of Trustees meeting, undergraduate research opportunities in 2018 for the university included 19 students at national or international labs, five additional research abroad students at Tor Vergata in Rome, more than four internships with corporations, and 20 students performing on-campus research.

Providing these opportunities, however, comes at a cost, said Hicks. Science lab fees have been increased to provide supplies and additional TAs, expenditures which are quickly extending beyond the departments’ budgets.

The science departments are currently conducting searches to hire necessary faculty to teach the increased number of students, said Hicks.

“There are searches this year for a sixth biology faculty member and a computer science/applied mathematician to help with the surge in [students],” said Hicks.

The impending retirement of chemistry professor Dr. Hendrickson presents another need, according to Hicks. Dr. Hendrickson has taught Organic Chemistry I and II over spring and fall, a workload that cannot be supported by a single new hire.

Biology Department Chair Dr. William Cody takes great pride in the personal attention the UD biology students receive. However, he said that the growing numbers make this dimension of education difficult to support.

Additional faculty is vital to giving the personal support that biology students at UD have come to expect, said Cody.

“We want small classroom sizes too, which is becoming harder,” said Cody. “A lot of students come to UD for small classrooms. They like being able to walk into a professor’s office and have a conversation, but once you get past a certain number of students in a major, that becomes more and more difficult.”

General Biology is one of the largest classes on campus, with only one section and over 100 students. Ideally, classes like General Biology, Physiology and Anatomy would have additional sections as well as added labs, according to Cody.

“Fortunately, we haven’t run out of lab space yet,” said Cody.

A contributing factor in the biology student growth is the 3-2 nursing program offered by UD in conjunction with Texas Woman’s University, according to Cody. The program allows nursing students to earn their BA in three years at UD, followed by two years at TWU to receive their Bachelor of Science in Nursing.

Overall, UD offers an unique and well-rounded education for the pre-medicine student, said Cody.

“There are very few liberal arts institutions with a strong science department,” said Cody. “So many students when [they] think of what they want out of their college career, they want to take history, philosophy and English classes while still looking at a job in dentistry or nursing.”

The success of UD science alumni also attracts prospective students, said Cody. Science graduates from UD stand out amongst their peers because they have conducted their own personal research with individual assistance from professors.

UD biology students applying to med school have an acceptance rate of around 85 percent. All seven seniors from his labs in the last two years are now in Ph.D. labs, said Cody.

“You can ask a UD grad a study or research question, and they’ll be able to tell you every detail because they actually did that research themselves while working directly with professors,” said Cody. “At other schools, faculty [don’t] have the time to spend with undergraduates in labs, or when they do, [the students] are washing glassware or pipetting A into B.”

“The bottom line is that these are good problems to have,” said Hicks, referring to the growth in science majors. “These science students bring their intellect and an interesting perspective to all their classes.”

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