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Understanding the New Bachelor of Science and Arts (BSA) Degree

Dean Sacha Kopp answers some questions about the BSA, the new interdisciplinary degree in the College of Natural Sciences.

Beginning in the fall semester of 2014, students in the College of Natural Sciences will be able to earn a new degree, the Bachelor or Science and Arts (BSA) degree. It’s a cross-disciplinary degree for those students interested in combining a core science experience with course work in the fine arts, liberal arts, communications, or business. Details about the degree can be found on the BSA webpage.

Students should speak to their advisors for the more fine-grained details of the new degree, but to get the bigger picture, I sat down for a few minutes with Dr. Sacha Kopp, associate dean for undergraduate education.

Daniel Oppenheimer: Why the BSA?

kopp-sacha-200pxSacha Kopp: Most of the students in this college follow a degree plan called the Bachelor of Science, or BS, which is effectively preparing you to be a specialist in that field. It’s a great degree plan if you’re going to graduate school in a given science or if you’re going to be a specialist. But we have 11,000 students in this college, and they have a lot of diverse interests. A lot of them want to explore science and math but they want to use it in some interdisciplinary way. We needed a better degree structure to support that.

The BSA allows students to get a science and math core experience but then at the same time, within their degree plan, to earn a minor in business or anthropology or classics or whatever that complementary interest would be. They can marry those two things together toward some career path that’s different from being an academic or working for Google. Maybe they want to work in business management. Maybe they want to be a science writer. In theory you can already do all those things as a student in the BS degree program, but you have to do them in addition to your degree; there’s no space to do a minor in business foundations, or in a foreign language, within our BS degree. It’s 80-90 hours of science and math, and everything else is an add-on. So this is a degree structure that encourages students to think about what is that cross-disciplinary area and have space in their degree to do it.

Do you think students might be concerned that a BSA is less impressive than a BS, less hard core?

What’s impressive depends on the outcome you want. If you are going to medical schoool, the BSA actually makes you more impressive, because you’ll have the space to do the kinds of coursework that medical schools increasingly want. They want increased competencies in subjects like family dynamics and sociology. They don’t want just science and math. If you’re going into a professional program in law, you’ll be more impressive because you’ll have taken more courses in writing. If you want to go into public policy you’ll be more impressive because you’ll now have space to do courses in and government. If you’re going into business, you’ll be more impressive because you’ll have courses in writing, foreign language, or business foundations.

It really depends on what you want. There are lots of employers who tell us they would like science students who can write their way out of a paper bag. Others would rather have computer science students who basically took CS courses until their heads explode. Those employers are both right for their own context. One is not better than the other. You have to figure it out based on your own career goals.

What we don’t want is a mismatch of goals. If student come through this place and want to go work in business, do they need all three semesters of quantum mechanics that are part of getting a BS in physics? Do they need all three herpetology field experiences in biology? Probably not. Those courses are required for the BS degree because that’s how you prepare a specialist, but for a student who has other goals they’re not optimal if they’re getting in the way of the courses that better suit his or her goals.

So students will get a BSA in physics, or biology?

Yes. Students earn a major in one of our departments and a minor or a certificate. They’ll be required to do that as well.

When can students begin working toward a BSA?

Starting in fall 2014 students can switch their degree over to the BSA. Whatever coursework they’ve already done that matches the template of the BSA will apply to that degree plan. So students should work with their advisor now to understand the degree and whether it’s right for them.

So in theory they could graduate in December 2014 with a BSA?

Correct. As long as they have the correct coursework. Just to be clear, though, this is not a lighter degree. It’s not easier than the BS, just different. We are asking for a real minor. That’s real work. This is not a mechanism to get rid of credits. We are expecting a serious academic interest in an area outside of science and math.

Are the students going to have a hard time getting those courses in other colleges?

It just depends. There are some areas that are closed. There are courses that are closed. The degree doesn’t support a minor in engineering or geosciences, for instance. Only non-science fields are allowed. But we’ve been working with the other colleges to identify what courses are open, and to create certificate programs that provide more access. There is going to be an enormous range of areas our students can study and courses they can take.

Anything else you want to add?

I just want to emphasize again that employers actually like this. They would like students to have communication skills, or business skills, or writing skills. Medical schools really like this; they would like to see students with a broad preparation on top of their science and math coursework, and in fact are revamping the MCAT to reflect those new, broader expectations.

Also, a lot of our faculty have equivalents of the BSA. They called it a BA, but it was the same. I have a BA. The dean has a BA. There are lots of faculty with a BA, and what that meant was that we had a well-rounded college experience with a serious science core. We are all better for it, because we have these other skills that came along with the ride.

Dan was publications editor for the College of Natural Sciences from 2006-2013. He is now communications manager for the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health.

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