“It’d be like if you took everyone in CS 106A, put them in 106B or X and told them, ‘Have fun, some Java is necessary, but we’re Stanford so we expect you to know that already,” C.J. told me Sunday afternoon.
C.J. is taking 15 units this quarter – CS 106A (5 units), accelerated French (5 units), Math 19 (3 units) and two one-unit courses, one on nutrition and one on entrepreneurial thought. He said he wants to be an economics major. Seems normal for a first-year student, right?
Right, except that the most advanced math course available to C.J. before college was Algebra II. His high school once tried to offer a combined algebra/precalculus course, but the teacher had to spend time going over algebra again and never reached precalculus.
For those unfamiliar with the Stanford curriculum, the Math 19/20/21 classes form a three-quarter introductory single-variable calculus series. Math 41/42 cover the same material in two quarters.
“I devote most of my time to math,” C.J. said of his classes. “A lot of my other peers will spend an appropriate amount of time with the homework and then go on with their week, whereas it takes me up to 25 hours.”
These 25 hours include teaching himself precalculus from a textbook he bought, watching online videos and consulting his roommates, dorm friends and resident tutor (RT).
“I wish I could go on with my CS assignment and do well in that class, but unfortunately, having to spend so much time in math, I have to withdraw from CS,” C.J. told me.
Even with the study deadline extended through Monday, C.J. cannot drop CS because it would put him under 12 units, he said.
C.J. said he’s considering reaching out to the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) in addition to his RT, but commented that going through each of these seems to be a lot of work when Stanford could just offer a precalculus course.
“You could do precalc for one quarter and then Math 41/42 and finish in the same amount of time [as the 19/20/21 series],” he said.
As C.J. pointed out, other gateway STEM disciplines (including physics, chemistry and computer science) offer introductory classes that assume no prior knowledge – Physics 19 requires only high school algebra and trigonometry, for example.
To those who might ask, ‘Why is he taking the class, then? He could take statistics,” C.J. and I pose another question: Why shouldn’t he?
“I want to take a lot of math courses here,” C.J. told me, saying Math 51 (linear algebra and multivariable calculus) is required for the economics degree he’s interested in pursuing.
While I was inspired by C.J. and have no doubt he’ll succeed, his situation raises a lot of questions about our university and larger educational system.
“Just because someone comes from a background where they’re not advantaged to get AP math/science doesn’t mean they don’t want to be an engineer,” C.J. told me.
While pre-college programs like Stanford Summer Engineering Academy (SSEA) and Leland Scholars help students from underrepresented and underserved backgrounds transition into STEM coursework, these programs still fail students like C.J. – students who, not for lack of interest, ability or trying, have not had adequate access to advanced math courses in high school.
C.J. said he thinks a majority of the students in this situation probably have the drive to push through these blocks, but will ultimately fail.
“Not because they’re not good enough,” he cautioned. “It’s because the time commitment and resource commitment aren’t there.”
Just as it’s unrealistic to think students could teach or re-teach themselves a year of high school math during a 10-week quarter amidst other classes and college expectations, it is unrealistic that a three- or four-week pre-college program could do the same.
The Diversity and First Gen Office directed me to the shadow courses offered by the Accelerated Calculus for Engineers (ACE) program, for which students attend an extra hours of section and receive an hour of problem solving sessions and special tutorials and which is offered in conjunction with the Math 19 series. Unfortunately, there is no ACE version of Math 19 offered this quarter.
Noting that he’s not afraid of the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) requirements, C.J. said, “It’s just that they don’t provide [math] at the level [underserved students] need – they assume everyone’s coming from the same background.”
This perspective assumes that students attended high schools with access to advanced math (most states require high schools teach up to Algebra II), that these schools teach advanced math adequately (the United States does not teach math as well as its peers) and that students have the financial resources to access help if the class is not taught well (e.g., money for supplementary aids, group tutoring and especially private tutoring).
The evidence of disparate levels of access and resources along intersecting lines of class, race and immigration status needs no discussion beyond saying that the usual suspects are at a severe disadvantage.
I am aware that our society is by no means meritocratic. And I therefore will not argue that Stanford and its peers should, or even do, “level the playing field” along lines of class/race disparities in the world.
Within our very limited bubble, however, I will argue that the University should do everything it possibly can to reduce access and opportunity gaps.
Stanford prides itself on offering seminars to less than 15 students, and an individual student can request formal instruction in any language the University doesn’t already teach; offering a precalculus course would demonstrate Stanford’s commitment to student interest and need and would create a wealth of benefits for students who have reached Stanford in spite of a classist and racist American education system.
Kristian is stoked that this column was sparked by a random lunchtime conversation and thinks you should be too! To be clear, he is indeed soliciting lunch/conversation with students on other undiscussed topics (no columns guaranteed).