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Davis, California

Friday, October 22, 2021

Class expansion possible effect of 2020 Initiative

When chemistry professor Dr. Carlito Lebrilla took a survey of where his 425 Chemistry students went to high school, he was shocked that 93 percent of the people in his lecture hall answered ‘in California.’

“That is not very international,” Lebrilla said. “If we want our students to know the world better, I think we need to be a lot more international than we are now, and I think this will really open up that opportunity for us.”

Lebrilla is referring to Chancellor Linda Katehi’s proposed 2020 Initiative, which has been widely discussed by the UC Davis community for the past year.

Major points of the initiative include an increase in the current undergraduate population by 5,000 domestic and international students, along with an increase in faculty by 300 and corresponding adjustments in facility sizes on campus by the year 2020. Specific allocations of said resources are to be determined in May.

“I see this as a real opportunity, getting more resources, setting up new programs, strengthening existing programs,” Lebrilla said. “It can make a big change in the university. I think to us, being international has always been there, but this is actually a little bit more than that.”

There are many questions about the current plan, including how an increase in students will affect four-year academic plans, specifically regarding the ability to graduate on time and register for classes. The 2020 Initiative has increased concern that the corresponding increase in faculty may not be able to offset the current difficulties with class sizes.

“We’re doing our best, but we’re going to need more help. I don’t know how far we can push this,” said computer science professor Dr. Premkumar Devanbu, who has recently seen a 40 to 50 percent increase in his class enrollment. “There are compromises that are being made already. We need more staff and resources if we are going to reach these goals.”

Students in impacted majors claim that they are frequently unable to get into required classes, and therefore end up needing to stay enrolled in classes for more than the expected four years. Other majors, mostly housed in the College of Engineering, often take longer to complete because of high unit requirements.

Third-year biomedical engineering major Murtiza Taymuree recently found out that he would have to stay at UC Davis for an extra quarter to finish his major.

“I think it’s just the coursework for engineers; you have to take a lot of classes and if you miss a class, you would be pretty far behind because they don’t always offer them every quarter,” Taymuree said. “For me to stay longer, it was always kind of expected.”

Although Taymuree considers himself “pretty lucky,” having gotten into most of his classes off of the waitlists, he does think that an increase in students by the year 2020 may raise pressure on the student body.

“If you were to add all those students, you would have to have bigger lecture halls and more [teaching assistants] to help out the professors,” he said. “That way, you’re still keeping that aspect of socialization, but you’re growing.”

Leaving UC Davis later than initially planned can affect graduate school plans, too.

“If you have to stay in college for an extra quarter, that kind of puts you back a whole year for applying to graduate schools or any other specialization,” Taymuree said.

For many first-years, the main concern with the proposal is its effects on class registration.

Pass 1 for first-year computer science and engineering major Shivani Singh has been scheduled for the last hour of each registration period all year — a time at which most classes are filled and have long waiting lists.

“It’s just the basic classes that are difficult because there are so many people that need to take them,” Singh said. “I have to talk to my advisor all the time; it’s a hassle for me.”

After being unable to register for several required classes during Fall and Winter Quarters, Singh went off the normal engineering track and took classes that weren’t required for her major, including a workload math class to compensate for not getting into Math 21A.

“I can take GE classes, but I need to get started [on my series] so that I can start taking my upper division classes by the time junior year comes around,” Singh said.

As a solution, many students would prefer to have an increased number of small class sections over fewer larger classes, and hope that the 2020 Initiative will be an opportunity for class size reduction.

“I do think that class size affects how well someone does in a class. Especially for something like engineering — you need to be able to ask questions and make sure you can understand concepts,” said third-year aerospace engineering major Otelo Contreras. “When it’s 300 people, a lot of people are too shy to ask questions. It’s definitely like a confidence issue, and I assume the class size has a lot to do with it.”

From the staff perspective, some faculty members want to be sure that UC Davis’ high standard of teaching is not lowered with the changes.

“This campus has always emphasized teaching,” Devanbu said. “Hopefully [the initiative] will be done in a way that doesn’t impact teaching quality. You have to balance the current demands for teaching with where the university is going to be in the future.”

Devanbu said personal contact is the most important part of teaching in large classes, and has recruited undergraduate volunteer tutors to hold office hours every week in addition to his own.

“I think the challenge of these big classrooms is basically to improve contact hours and provide opportunities for personal interaction,” Devanbu said. “I think we will have to work at it and make sure it happens. We don’t want to take [personal contact] away, because then what’s the difference between us and massive online courses?”

Lebrilla doesn’t think his teaching style will change even if the lecture halls were to get bigger.

“Davis has been much more undergraduate-focused and I think that culture is still here, and I don’t think that is going to change with the size of the student body,” Lebrilla said. “The contact will definitely be decreased when there’s a lot of students, but once you reach the threshold of 100 or 200 [students], then the feeling is the same. If they’re afraid to ask [a question] in a class of 400, they’re going to be afraid to ask in a class of 700.”

Lebrilla said the current problem with UC Davis is the lack of resources, not size, as demonstrated by successful universities across the country with over 40,000 undergraduate students.

“This can be an opportunity both for the domestic and international students,” he said. “We don’t have enough money to deal with the students we have now, but if that cost is helped by having these new students pay full fare, then that helps everyone.”

In the event that the 2020 Initiative has negative effects on class sizes, the faculty is already finding ways to avoid them. Professors across many disciplines are adapting to interactions with many students at once through new teaching methods.

This quarter, 350 students in Devanbu’s ECS 30 class will transition to the flipped model of learning, which incorporates online resources and in-class group activities to foster discussion and participation.

Lebrilla has tried to become more connected to his students through Twitter accounts and frequent clicker questions in lecture.

“There are things that you can do and that we try to do to still have that contact. Here in Davis, we really do try to have a certain faculty-student ratio,” Lebrilla said. “Certainly I wouldn’t be in favor of having a class size of 700 students.”

RITIKA IYER can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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