Maths and science

Studying Science and Mathematics in a Liberal Arts Environment

An important objective of a liberal arts college or university is to produce a knowledgeable and informed graduate. A core curriculum or general education core is a group of fundamental courses that are essential to a liberal arts education. A core typically includes the study of mathematics and the sciences with the purpose of enabling students to sharpen their powers of observation, analysis and evaluation. Sounds like critical thinking, doesn’t it? Developing critical thinking skills is often included in the mission statement of most liberal arts colleges, because faculty and administrators are convinced of the value of independent, clear and effective thought processes that allow students and graduates to adapt their thinking to different issues, ideas and disciplines.


Pursuing the study of science and math has several outcomes. Studying sciences helps students in understanding and investigating the composition and changes in the world as they relate to living and physical properties. Mathematics students develop and apply problem-solving techniques and analytical thinking processes. Biologists develop an understanding of the life sciences through the study of basic principles of the structures and function of a variety of organisms and through the study of ecosystems and the environment. In chemistry class and labs, students pursue the scientific study of composition, structure, properties and reactions of matter, especially at the level of atomic and molecular systems. Studying physical and earth sciences helps students fully understand their relationships to the environment and society. All these skills are clearly related to critical thinking and the ability to learn about any subject, no matter what the student’s major course of study and eventual career path.


Studying science or math as a major can prepare students for a variety of careers, including the health professions, teaching on the elementary, secondary or university levels, or in several areas of business and industry as an ecologist, an insurance actuary, a scientific or technical writer, or as a marketing or human resources specialist.



Most small colleges and universities that embrace a liberal arts philosophy have small classes and low faculty-to-student ratios to ensure interaction between teachers and students. In addition, small campuses tend to have strong support systems that go beyond basic academic advising to prepare students for entry into graduate or professional schools or the workplace.


Faculty should demonstrate a strong connection between the course content and the current practices in the field of specialization. Even in a small institution where the emphasis is on teaching, faculty will belong to professional organizations, publish articles in professional and scholarly journals, present papers at conferences, and do consulting work.


Liberal arts institutions are more likely to have faculty with doctoral degrees teaching core courses, as well as courses in the major, which is a bonus for students since they can have more interaction in small classes with professionals from the field with a passion for teaching, rather than sitting in large classrooms being taught by graduate assistants whose interests or talents may not lie in teaching.


“Moving from research-based institutions to a smaller campus that emphasizes teaching excellence has been an enlightening experience for me,” said Dr. Lali G Chatterjee, Professor or Astronomy/Physics at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee, and a visiting scientist at national laboratories. “Teaching undergraduate students in several disciplines help me keep material relevant. And it’s such a pleasure to watch minds open up and see a subject become fresh and stimulating to students encountering it for the first time.”


Programs of Study

Every good student wants intellectual challenges, and studying math and science will certainly provide them. Students should look for programs that will engage them as researchers or investigators with faculty and peers, using quantitative and qualitative methods. Challenging programs will provide opportunities for students to design experiments and problems to enhance observation skills and conceptual development. Be sure the learning facilities provide access to multimedia information sources and simulations.


Preparation for Graduate/Professional Study

Admission requirements vary from one campus to the next, but most have similar requirements for completed undergraduate courses. Medical schools may require one year each of biology and physics, and two years of chemistry. Dental schools look for students who have completed one year of biology, one year of physics, two years of chemistry, as well as one year each of mathematics and English. Students headed for pharmacy school will need 16 hours of chemistry, eight hours each of biology and physics, plus three hours each of microbiology and calculus.


The goal of any major program is to strengthen the preparation for graduate work and provide the framework for obtaining the necessary courses required for admittance to graduate school. It’s a good idea to obtain catalogs of schools of interest early in the college career, so that exact requirements can be met. Admission to professional schools is highly competitive, and students should be aware that satisfying completion of pre-professional study does not guarantee admission to professional schools. Students are well advised to plan an undergraduate program of study with an alternate goal in mind.


Major factors influencing admission into professional schools are academic performance, recommendations, scores on national standardized examinations, and interview performance. In addition to maintaining a high grade point average, students should demonstrate a commitment and dedication to their goals with appropriate extra- or co-curricular activities and volunteer service or employment in the profession to gain experience.

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