Home > Uncategorized > Chemistry, Psychology, and my apology to a Georgia Tech grad

Chemistry, Psychology, and my apology to a Georgia Tech grad

Sometime around the start of the Spring 2011 semester, while dining at the Five Guys Burger and Fries near Georgia Tech, I ran into a Computer Science student who had taken my Multicore and GPU Programming for Video Games class a few years earlier. He was a skilled and insightful programmer, quite bright, and intellectually mature. Conversations with him felt like conversations with a faculty colleague; he was simultaneously easy-going and professional. I still remember my jaw dropping at the quality of his Shaded First Person shooter assignment; he had gone far beyond the requirements of the assignment.

I asked him what he was up to. He told me that he was working with a startup company. It had recently received a good chunk of venture capital, and he was an early hire. The idea behind the company was clever, and not one I had heard before. The company was based in another state some distance from Georgia, so I asked him what he was still doing here. He said he was taking two classes. I was confused; I thought he surely must have graduated by now. He said he had thought that too.

He had planned to graduate in Fall 2010. But due to some combination of his own confusion and the confusion of one or more academic advisors, he belatedly found out he hadn’t fulfilled his graduation requirements.

So what courses was he taking in Spring 2011, his last semester? What classes were preventing him from moving to a new state to work at the company that wanted him? What classes were holding him back? They were General Chemistry and Psychology.

To add insult to the injury, he had taken an additional physics courses beyond that required of CS majors. He had erroneously thought that course would have fulfilled the requirement he wound up having to fulfill with General Chemistry.

I looked at him and said, “I am so, so sorry.”

Couldn’t we (and by “we,” I mean Georgia Tech) have just let him go? What possible purpose would have been served by keeping him around? Our introductory science courses are huge. No one would have missed him. I’ve sometimes seen general education requirements justified in terms of making it easier for people to switch majors. Perhaps that’s true of courses taken early on, but it’s clear at this point that he wasn’t going to be switching his major to Psychology or Chemistry. Would a lack of either or both of those courses seriously hindered his ability to contribute to the company that had just hired him?

I’ve heard general education requirements justified under a fuzzily defined goal of “teaching students to think.” I’d have a hard time looking at this student and saying, “ah, he’s almost there, but he can’t quite think yet. He needs general chemistry! Then he can think!”

Admittedly, if he had taken General Chemistry instead of his additional physics class, and had slipped Psychology into an earlier semester, this wouldn’t have risen to the level of his or my notice. But when those classes are broken out like that, representing an entire additional semester, their uselessness relative to this particular student’s needs sticks out.

One of my earlier posts focused on the financial aspects of required courses. Although the cost of college is frequently in the news – for good reason – it probably wasn’t the best angle for me to start with. The real issue here is time. Beyond having to pay for two additional classes he wasn’t expecting, how can we argue that those classes were a good use of his time? Moving beyond the particular company that hired him, wouldn’t society be better off if he could go ahead and start innovating? If at some point in his career he needed to balance chemical equations, there’s plenty of avenues for gaining that knowledge.

He finished those two classes and moved to be near the company. He and the company are doing well; the company recently received second, larger round of VC funding. They’re expanding. He asked me to send talented students his way.

Certainly, there are large swaths of computer science for which knowledge of psychology is useful. Indeed, at least one of our College of Computing’s Threads requires General Psychology. Cognative Science and Computational Neuroscience are hot areas. So I’m not arguing that a class in psychology is “bs” relative to all of Computer Science.

I remember taking a class in psychology one summer at a local community college to fulfill one of my well-roundedness requirements. The thing I remember the most about it was that the instructor eerily resembled my first long-term girlfriend in high school (where long-term is defined relative to what the term might mean to someone in high school.) The grade was determined solely by multiple choice tests. Two decades later, I couldn’t tell you anything about what might have been on them, although I probably couldn’t have told you any of that two months later either. As long as I made a “C” or above, the credit would transfer to Washington University, but the grade wouldn’t. So the class wasn’t too much of a time sink – I put no effort into studying for it, and took the tests solely based on what I could remember from the classes. I got a “B,” and the credit transferred, so I was happy. I had more fun with it than most courses since I didn’t stress about it at all. It still was probably not the best use of my time or my parent’s money.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Kyle Stephens
    December 17, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    Man, I’ve a lot to say in support, but in the meantime, I find it both comforting and scary that this kind of “gotcha!” stuff happens to students everywhere. I have stories, as do most people I know.

    I also always found it frustrating (to say the least) that for an institution supposedly enamored with critical thinking, it was never seriously considered nor answered when I asked “Why are we learning this??” Without that foundation in hand, everything taught is truly all for naught.

  2. December 19, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    Off-topic for the post but appropriate for the blog:
    http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/wrm/2011/12/19/the-ax-is-laid-to-the-root-of-the-tree/
    The “two and two” model for a degree looks like something that would work well with your points.

  3. WG
    January 4, 2012 at 5:22 pm

    These kinds of course requirements (and the gargantuan waste of time that they amount to) do not end with college. Graduate school is at least as bad as college (if not worse) in requiring students to take worthless courses. Mandatory seminars with huge reading loads do little but add to the already ridiculously long time that grad students spend working toward degrees today.

    It’s one of the “100 reasons NOT to go to grad school”:
    http://100rsns.blogspot.com/2010/10/21-graduate-seminars-can-be-unbearable.html

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