Leaning Tower of Prerequisites

A diagram of the inter-dependencies of required courses in the science concentration of the Food Science and Technology program at Virginia Tech. The chemistry, microbiology, and food science courses are highly interconnected while the math courses are mostly linear and there is an isolated bubble of economics classes at the bottom.
A diagram of the inter-dependencies of required courses in the science concentration of the Food Science and Technology program at Virginia Tech. The chemistry, microbiology, and food science courses are highly interconnected while the math courses are mostly linear and there is an isolated bubble of economics classes at the bottom.

In last week’s post, I talked a bit about the problems with prerequisite series and remedial coursework when it comes to retaining students in science and engineering majors. I also talked about Dr. Klingbeil’s call to action for parsing out the chain of prerequisites in your academic department and how long it will take students coming in needing “remedial” math credit to actually reach an in-major course. You can see some of the results for the Food Science BS (science track) visualized above using Neo4j.

Math classes don’t seem to be the huge stumbling block for Food Science students at Virginia Tech that they have been reported to be in other STEM fields. Only 2 food science courses, Principles of Sensory Evaluation and Food Analysis, require a student to have taken any amount of math (even indirectly), and neither is a prerequisite for any other food science courses. Additionally, all of the required math classes are offered in Fall, Spring, and Summer, meaning a student could arrive at VT needing to take pre-calculus, fail/drop/withdraw/incomplete two separate semesters of math classes, never take a summer class, and still be on track to take Food Analysis and Principles of Sensory Evaluation in the spring of their Junior year as is generally intended (otherwise the senior-year spring semester gets pretty crowded). This isn’t perfect, and admittedly could still be tricky for transfer students or anyone starting in the Spring semester, but it’s a far cry from the math problem many STEM departments are realizing they have.

Admittedly, food science isn’t the most math-intensive major at any institution, but I was still surprised how easy it was to trace all of the possible math progressions for VT food science students. Virginia Tech, according to its first-year admissions requirements page, will not accept anyone who doesn’t already have credit for the equivalent of geometry and algebra classes. I admittedly don’t know if Tech makes a habit of waiving any admissions requirements as part of  their “holistic review”, but since Tech does not have any sort of math placement test program and doesn’t offer a math class below the level of precalculus (unlike my undergraduate institution, which did offer “high school algebra”), I’m a bit skeptical that it would be possible to waive these ones. I don’t think this is exactly a shining bastion of an accessible program of study, because under-prepared students who might get caught up in and weeded out by the “remedial” math course sequences at other universities simply can’t attend Virginia Tech unless they spend a year catching up at some other college.

The first food science course, Intro to Food Science, can actually be taken without any prerequisites. If a student could find a way to fit it into their Freshman-year schedule, they could presumably take it their first semester. Unfortunately, most students won’t be able to take their next food science class until Spring of their sophomore year, if not Fall as a junior (unless they pick electives without many prerequisites).

The much more tangled part of the food science course progression is the chemistry requirements. Two semesters of general chemistry (class + lab) and at least one of organic (class + lab) are required for all food science students, and each class in the series requires the previous class to be completed. While some perusal of the course catalog for the past few years seemed to indicate that most of the general education chemistry classes are offered every semester, there were often only one or two sections in the “off” semesters (e.g. General Chemistry II in the Fall or Organic Chemistry I in the Spring), so I’m a bit doubtful of how easy it would be to actually get back on track if a student got a semester behind.

Most of the senior-level “capstone” food science courses required either Food Microbiology or Food Chemistry or both, which respectively required either General Microbiology or Biochemistry, each of which required 2-3 semesters of chemistry which had to be taken in order. This leaves very little wiggle room, meaning the progression of in-major courses is pretty much set in stone for the average incoming student, entirely in the last 2 years (mostly the last 3 semesters), and to top it all off, every FST class other than the intro is only offered once a year. Something that gets brought up often in my department is the number of students that transfer into Food Science from two-year colleges or other majors, and how the curriculum should ideally be feasible for them to take in 2 years. But presumably making it possible to take classes earlier doesn’t also mean requiring students to take them earlier.

To that end, the most influential change would just be, I think, to lower the bar of prerequisites for at least a few of the courses. To contrast Virginia Tech and NC State again, at NC State the prerequisite for Food Chemistry is one semester of Organic Chemistry (which covers chemical structures and reactions), rather than Biochemistry (which typically focuses more on metabolism and pathways). Dropping exclusively the Biochemistry requirement in favor or Organic wouldn’t help the average student taking the chemistry progression one semester at a time from their Fall Freshman semester, since Food Chemistry is also offered in the fall, but if it, say, switched semesters with Food Micro, that would give students the added flexibility to take it their sophomore year, as I did, and get the students into classes they care about sooner (without increasing the teaching load). The more meaningful change, I think, would be to follow the Wright State Engineering model more closely and retool some of the more “basic” food science courses so they cover the material pulled from other classes as necessary, rather than requiring a tower of prerequisites, but I imagine that would be a far trickier, more involved change.

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