Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Thursday, April 18, 2024

Lesser known majors offer rich academic experiences

Picture the trunk of a tree, and imagine that it is an academic department. Its branches are majors, and perhaps its leaves can be students. Majors are the primary way through which Tufts students consolidate their intellectual pursuits. Some of them exist outside of the spotlight, yet despite being younger or smaller in size, they are no less in value and profundity. The Daily spoke to faculty from four such departments to learn more.

The Department of Earth and Climate Sciences will be undergoing considerable changes over the next couple of years, including a reform of its major offerings. Additionally, Associate Professor Jill VanTongeren shared that three new faculty members will be starting in the department in the fall 2023 semester with more hiring expected the following school year.

“We are transitioning … with several new faculty coming in in the next couple of years, into having two majors,” VanTongeren said. “One in earth sciences, so that’s sort of the classical geology, … and then we’re going to have a parallel track in climate science which would be more geared towards understanding the rock record and historical evolution of Earth’s climate system.”

As an undergraduate, Jack Ridge, Tufts professor and chair of the earth and climate sciences department, became interested in the field as a way to apply his interests in physics and the outdoors. He believes that the ECS majors at Tufts are accessible because they offer introductory courses that don’t have natural science prerequisites.

“Earth sciences is a little different than the other sciences because most students haven’t had it in high school. … A lot of our students … find [our majors] by accident; they happen to take [a] course and say, ‘I didn't know any of this existed, this was pretty cool,’ and they decided to major in it,” Ridge said.

For VanTongeren, ECS is a unique science due to its lack of control experiments, which prompts earth scientists to take different approaches to understand the immense time scales they deal with.

“Geology, in general, … has a lot of the same techniques, inferences and puzzle pieces that need to fit together to be able to understand — particularly past — climate and environment,” VanTongeren said. “We have no control experiment, because we can’t go back four or five billion years ago. … We have to make the inferences based off of processes that are going on today, or [through] detailed experiments that we can do in the lab.”

There can be advantages to majoring in a smaller department like ECS, which VanTongeren describes as having a “family-like atmosphere.”

“Our undergraduates might get more personalized attention because classes are smaller, and the primary students that we’re dealing with are undergraduates,” Ridge said. “The other science departments at Tufts all have graduate programs.”

Moreover, ECS students are able to engage in special opportunities beyond the classroom such as lecture series, collaborations with the civil and environmental engineering department and various fieldwork trips.

“I just took … my students out to the coastline to go and look at a bunch of volcanoes that erupted 600 million years ago,” VanTongeren said. “Turns out Boston used to be part of Africa, and it got sort of slammed onto North America during the formation of Pangea, and all of those volcanoes that signal that collision are sitting right at Salem, in Marblehead.”

ECS students may also find themselves flying in an airplane with Professor Ridge to survey Plum Island just north of Boston. They might even study geologically interesting landscapes across the country — trips that the department ensures to make financially inclusive.

“Every other year, we try to take a trip to the Southwest,” Ridge said. “We've started going to Death Valley, and we actually stay in a national park and the department pays for … everything; all the students have to do is get themselves to Las Vegas, and then have money for food. If they can't afford that, or let’s say they can’t afford field boots or something, the department helps them with those funds because we don’t want anybody excluded from the trip.”

After graduation, Ridge has seen ECS majors continue onto all sorts of industries, including environmental law, lab research, science writing, nonprofit work, consulting, entrepreneurship or even working as geologists for banks. VanTongeren elaborated on the upcoming window of opportunity due to shifts in the workforce.

“Particularly with the baby boomer generation all retiring really soon, … there’s projected to be about a 50% deficit in the geologic workforce in the next five years,” VanTongeren said. “We don't have enough geologists to replace them, which is really a problem because geology is [how] we get all of [our] resources — all of the rare earth elements that go into your phone, or into a Prius or into all of this green technology.”

Music, sound and culture is the main undergraduate major offered by the Tufts music department, alongside a noteworthy minor in music engineering. Melinda Latour, assistant professor of musicology and director of undergraduate studies for music, elaborated on the intentions behind an overhaul of the program in 2017.

“We take music seriously across the entire domain of sound. That's why we [renamed the major] music, sound and culture — that it’s not just about the kind of elite classical tradition that used to be the subject of an academic music department. … That’s just one of many things that we do,” Latour said.

According to Latour, the major examines how music intersects with a wide variety of domains, including history, politics, identity and healing.

“Often … students just think about performance,” Latour said. “Whereas what we do in the music department is so much richer and so much more integrated with … the liberal arts curriculum.”

Alessandra Campana, an associate professor of music, hopes for the music department and Granoff Music Center to be a physical, spiritual and cultural hub open to the entire student community. She addressed a potential misconception about studying music at Tufts.

“Many institutions … think of music as something that you need to [have worked] hard at since when you were 3 or something like that,” Campana said. “But [at Tufts], that’s not the case. Many of our students start learning an instrument from scratch when they arrive.”

Latour explained that the music, sound and culture major allows undergraduates to connect the dots of their own experiences.

“Think about the musical genres that you are immersed in, and how you’re actually an expert listener, often, … in some aspect of music,” Latour said. “It just hasn’t maybe historically been valued in the academy. You actually already have a skill even if you don’t really know how to talk about it yet.”

Students majoring in music, sound and culture are often pursuing two majors; some common pairings include community health, international relations or forms of engineering. There is also an option for undergraduates to apply to a program that grants them both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in music within five years.

Ultimately, students emerge from the music, sound and culture major with training in empathy and an understanding of humanity that Latour argued cannot be replaced by technology.

“Whatever it is that they’re doing, they do it better, with … a kind of ability to … be flexible and sensitive to the world around them,” Latour said. “I think that’s one of the things that studying music in this liberal arts context can do, and it can help us to actually understand people better.”

Science, technology and society is an interdisciplinary major at Tufts which has been available since spring 2016. Samantha Fried, the program manager for STS, explained why it is a co-major, meaning that STS cannot be a standalone degree and can only be pursued alongside another major.

“A lot of courses at Tufts are offered in the realm of science, technology and society … but there wasn't before a place … to intentionally plan curricula around those themes,” Fried said.

STS faculty are each based in their own “home department” at Tufts, allowing an STS major the flexibility to take courses across a range of disciplines.

“Faculty can have a pretty broad variety of expertise and training,” Fried said. “I think it means that classes encompass really different … canonical ways of thinking.”

Nick Seaver, a professor of STS and anthropology, described the value of linking natural sciences with social sciences.

“I think that we have a tendency to think about science [and engineering] as though it happens in a vacuum,” Seaver said. “Like it’s just people having ideas and pursuing them for their own sake. … So one thing that courses in STS often focus on are things like how specific social contexts shaped the way that technologies are built.”

Both Fried and Seaver mentioned the STS Lunch Seminar Series, which features weekly speakers from nearby or even abroad. It runs every semester and is open to the public or can serve as a one-credit course that students can enroll in.

As a relatively new major at Tufts, the rise of STS represents a burgeoning interest in the institutional histories and social consequences of science and technology. Like most majors at Tufts, it strives to tie together multiple perspectives and academic dimensions, cultivating skills that are perennially in demand and valuable.

“There is often a fear among students that if one doesn’t major in something recognizable, that one won’t get a job,” Fried said. “I think most people’s jobs have very little to do with what they major in. … It’s not so much the major but the set of skills that you learn in that major, and critical thinking [is] so important for any kind of job that you end up doing.”