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Magnet Classes

Academic TrendsAs students focus on timely and "Tufts-centric" issues, classes like Arabic, Chinese, community health, biomedical engineering and music are seeing a strong uptick in enrollments.


At the height of the Cold War, students at Tufts and other universities flocked to Russian classes.

Today, Arabic is the new Russian -- with Chinese not far behind. The fluctuation of preferences in foreign language study is just one example of how current events affect students' course choices. For the most part, coursework pursued by Tufts undergraduates mirrors national trends, reflecting changes in world affairs, domestic politics and, of course, economic cycles.

In other cases, the motivation behind what students study is more "Tufts-specific," so to speak. The number of students taking music courses, for example -- always high for a school with an undergraduate enrollment of just under 5,000 -- has climbed even higher since the Granoff Center, the university's spectacular new music building, opened in February 2007.

"There are external changes, and also good examples of internal changes, things happening within the institution that students have responded to," says James Glaser, dean of undergraduate education. Because Tufts has so many interdisciplinary programs, such as International Relations, looking at course enrollments within academic departments, rather than majors, provides a clearer picture of students' interests.

For much of the past decade, the single event that has influenced students' course choices has been, without a doubt, 9/11. The aftermath of the terrorist attacks and the subsequent war in Iraq has not only sustained interest in Tufts' already-strong International Relations program and political science department and prompted a desire for courses in Arabic language and culture, but has also bolstered interest in subjects with a less-obvious connection.

"I think some interesting things happened post-9/11," says Edith Balbach, director of the Community Health Program, which increased its enrollment by 400 students between the 200203 and 200708 academic years. Students were drawn to community health in large part because "it became clear the country didn't have sufficient public health services, or disease surveillance, in place. The whole anthrax scare made public health visible."

Other factors included developments in science and technology. For instance, by 2002, interest in the emerging field of biomedical engineering had become so strong that the School of Engineering created a new department devoted to the subject. By 200708, there were 145 students taking biomedical engineering courses.

Engineering students are turning their focus to energy technology. "The big uptick in interest right now is in sustainable energy," says Linda Abriola, dean of the School of Engineering. "That's the wave of the future." As a result, the engineering school has hired three new faculty members with expertise in energy and is developing new classes to meet the demand.

By the Numbers

Arabic: 98 to 344
Chinese: 318 to 600
Community Health: 503 to 904
Music: 1,501 to 1,898

A look at the number of Tufts undergraduates enrolled in courses for a grade in the various Arts & Science departments in the 200203 and 200708 academic years shows some of the most significant increases. (At left)

The departments that traditionally have drawn the largest numbers of students -- including mathematics, psychology, English and Spanish -- remained relatively steady during that time. Economics, with the largest number of enrollments, was virtually unchanged, with 3,289 enrollments in 200203 and 3,285 in 200708.

Political science remained stable, too, although traditionally its enrollment has tended to fluctuate with the presidential election cycle, bumping up every four years. But, "we saw growth in political science immediately after 2001, and that has been sustained over time," says Glaser, who is a professor of political science. Poly sci enrollments were at 2,182 in 2002-03 and 2,200 in 2007-08.

Within the School of Engineering, course enrollments by department don't prove as useful a measure, because the school reorganized three areas of study in 2002, creating the department of biomedical engineering and splitting the department of electrical engineering and computer science into two separate departments.

Academic Trends

Biomedical Engineering Professor Irene Georgakoudi works with student Joanna Xylas at the Science and Technology Center.

Engineering work is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, says Abriola, the dean. For instance, there are faculty members in each engineering department who are engaged in bioengineering applications, she says. One result of that this semester is an experimental computer science class in bioinformatics, the application of information technology to the field of molecular biology.

"Also, there is a very keen interest in what some circles is called human engineering -- which is consistent with Tufts' emphasis on active citizenship," Abriola says. "It's the idea of using engineering to solve problems in developing nations, particularly in environmental areas, like water supply and disease mitigation." Civil engineering students are interested in learning about new methods of construction -- "smart buildings" -- and rebuilding infrastructure in a sustainable way, she adds.

The influence of the economic climate was evident in the dip in popularity in computer science after the dot-com bust a few years ago. "In about 2002, we saw a drop in computer science majors, which used to be one of our larger groups," Abriola says. "But that's starting to come back again somewhat."

In just the past year, there has been a "dramatic increase," says Diane Souvaine, chair of the computer science department. In spring 2008, for example, 85 students took "Introduction to Computer Science"; this semester, there are 110 in the course, with six on the wait list at the start of the semester. A year ago, there were 49 students in "Data Structures"; this semester, there are 113.

Nationally, a 2008 survey from the Computing Research Association, an academic organization, found that for the first time since 2000, the number of students majoring in computer science was up slightly. (continued)

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Profile written by Helene Ragovin, Senior Writer, Office of Publications

Anishchenkova photos by Alonso Nichols, University Photography. Balbach photo by Melody Ko, University Photography. Gamelan and Georgakoudi photos by Joanie Tobin, University Photography.

This story ran online Feb. 23, 2009. It originally ran in the Feb. 4 edition of the Tufts Journal.