Science for a non-science major
November 11, 2009 6:06 PM   Subscribe

I am returning to college to complete my bachelors degree and need to take a natural science class to fulfill general education requirements. Which class is the best choice for someone who is utterly intimidated by science?

I am an accounting major and have not studied any type of science since high school (approximately 10 years ago). It was always my least favorite class in school because I thought it was boring and I never had the aptitude for it.

Biology is required, and I must choose an additional class from Astronomy, Chemistry, Physics, or Geology. All four are equally terrifying to me. Which of these fields is the most accessible and/or has the shallowest learning curve for a science dunce such as myself?
posted by madforplaid to Education (46 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
A lot of folks think Astronomy is going to be a cake walk, but it can involve some serious math (though as an accounting major, you might be comfortable with that). A lot of universities offer a 'Physics for non-science majors' sort of class, so you might want to see if that sort of option is available (at my school, it was called "How Things Work," and it was actually one of the best-loved classes at our university).

My guess would be that Geology is probably the most accessible of those four to someone who doesn't generally like science, though there can be a lot of memorization involved. I do not mean to in any way discredit Geology, but I've heard Geo 101 referred to as "rocks for jocks" a lot more often than I've ever heard of a notion like "chem for REM."
posted by solipsophistocracy at 6:12 PM on November 11, 2009

I was in your position in college and I chose geology. I ended up really liking it.
posted by cooker girl at 6:12 PM on November 11, 2009

Are there pre-meds at your college? If so, figure out which intro courses they take and don't take those-- classes designed for pre-meds have a very steep learning curve by nature (my freshman year GPA is testament to this).

If you like math (assuming from your accounting major), then astronomy, chemistry, and physics will all likely be more your speed than geology-- although geology tends to carry the super easy, "rocks for jocks" reputation.
posted by oinopaponton at 6:15 PM on November 11, 2009

You should take chemistry. Between that and biology you're really going to have a better appreciation for the stuff you're surrounded by. Physics and astronomy are also awesome, but are going to be more math-heavy. Don't take geology.
posted by floam at 6:16 PM on November 11, 2009

Rocks for jocks. Geology.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:17 PM on November 11, 2009

Can you ask around at your school to find out what the classes are like? Intro-level physics was terrible at my university and geology was a piece of cake, but I imagine that probably varies a bit by school and professor.
posted by something something at 6:18 PM on November 11, 2009

I'd say it depends on whether process is easier for you, or if memorization is easier for you.

If process is easier, I suggest chemistry. The first two semesters of chemistry are very much like algebra: you learn the rules, and then you apply them. The only memorization in most chemistry classes is a dozen or so polyatomic ions and their charges. The rest of it consists mostly of applying algorithms. I can't memorize for shit, so I did chemistry throughout highschool and college.

If memorization is easier, I'd suggest geology. I didn't take it, but most of my friends did. They had long lists of stuff to memorize, so that they could identify rocks on sight. But there was very little process-oriented work... just recall of facts.
posted by Netzapper at 6:18 PM on November 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

You should take physics. It will be the most real world interesting while still being accessible.
posted by sickinthehead at 6:19 PM on November 11, 2009

Does it involve a lab? Lab reports? At my school, chem labs require a report but physics labs don't. I'd take that into consideration if you can find out.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 6:19 PM on November 11, 2009

I'm going to suggest zoology. Its the encyclopedia of the animals with the relationships thrown in. You'll learn cool stuff about animals and know what you are looking at in nature. Pretty much just memorization, no experiments or anything like that. Needless to say, no math.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:19 PM on November 11, 2009

IANY Guidance Counselor:

Absolutely stay away from physics. Most people who dislike science (sweeping generalization alert!) dislike it because of all the formulas, word problems that you need to apply these formulas and rules to and the fact that an answer is often only right or wrong with very little room for part marks on a question. Physics more than any other pure science tends to be like this.

Chemistry is like that only slightly less. For an introduction to chemistry course, you'll still probably be doing lots of unit conversions and energy calculations.

Geology and astronomy are probably your best bet, in that order.
posted by battlebison at 6:19 PM on November 11, 2009

Another thing to do is ask fellow classmates what sciences they have taken and what they thought of them. Sometimes if you pick an "easy" science class, you'll end up with a professor who has a score to settle to make his/her class NOT a fluff class and will put you through the wringer. So try to consider both the class itself and the professor.
posted by GlowWyrm at 6:22 PM on November 11, 2009

If you possibly can, check out the instructors for the courses. I've usually found that the instructor matters as much as or more than the material.
posted by anadem at 6:25 PM on November 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

someone who is utterly intimidated by science

This is me. Geology is what you want.
posted by anderjen at 6:28 PM on November 11, 2009

Ditto geology. It is so much easier to remember facts about mountains and streams than about chromium and phosphates. The only tough part of geology was minerology, which involves a bit of memorization.
posted by salvia at 6:32 PM on November 11, 2009

Geology doesn't have nearly as many formulas to remember and use as chemistry or physics. I wasn't a jock, but due to stupidity on my own part, I didn't have the math skills needed for chem or physics, and biology and cutting things up left me cold.

Geology is like the science of history, in a way. It's like reading a story, at least it was to me, and was therefore more interesting. If you can, like at my school, take a course that is cross-coded with geography (all 101-103 courses were both GL/GE), you might be able to take a course in landscapes, where you study how landscapes came to be. It will help you appreciate the world around you so much more.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:34 PM on November 11, 2009

Geology is it. Astronomy could be interesting, but geology stands out among the four you listed because it's not as mathy and you may find it pretty interesting, as it will help illuminate the natural environment around you. At least, that's what I found.
posted by malapropist at 6:36 PM on November 11, 2009

I took rocks for jocks at my college and it kicked my ass. To be fair, I was carrying a huge load that term and didn't devote the time it deserved. I love rocks, I love geology (when we go on road trips a Roadside Geology book usually comes with us), but I did much better in Stars for Everyone (aka astronomy 101) even though I'm not so hot at math.
posted by rtha at 6:38 PM on November 11, 2009

I couldn't get into geology in college because all the jocks had registered for it; I was stuck in an awful physics class. I don't know if a "good" physics class would have been any better. I didn't learn a thing, and I think I'm probably lucky that I was able to take it pass-fail. My problems were what battlebison said precisely. Take geology.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:39 PM on November 11, 2009

Geology, most definintely geology. My second suggestion would be Biology just because learning about life is interesting to a lot of people who aren't into science as much.

Agree with the first poster that Astronomy is a big 'no'. I know so many people who took it because "it is just looking at stars and memorizing constellations and stuff" but it isn't, it is one of the hardest classes they ever took.

Entry-level physics is terrible at my university and from what I've heard the same goes for most universities. No one wants to teach it and they end up talking WAY above everyone's heads. The tutoring center at my school is filled with people doing Calculus and Entry-level Physics.
posted by magnetsphere at 6:47 PM on November 11, 2009

Rocks for jocks. Most definitely.

Astronomy sounds like it would be a cakewalk, but it is absolutely not. There's a lot of hard math in it. One of my friends got her ass kicked hard from that class. Another downside is that the labs are necessarily very late.
posted by lilac girl at 7:19 PM on November 11, 2009

Assuming you have some skill at math, as an accounting student, I recommend Physics.

Physics is mostly applied math. There is some memorization required, but far less than the other 3 subjects you listed. It's mostly focused on applying the formulae you learn to specific word problems.

Geology has lots of memorization, Astronomy combines memorization with math and the difficulty of Chemistry will be highly dependent on what level of Chem is being taught (high school Chem is easy, university Chem gets much more abstract and difficult).

That being said, a lot can change due to professors and lab instructors. Frankly you'd be better off in a harder subject with great instruction as opposed to an easier subject and abysmally poor instruction.

I also think Netzapper and Battlebison make excellent points! Why did you abhor science in school? Identify that, and it will help you make a better choice.

As for the required Biology course, here's my advice. Know that Biology requires a lot of memorization of facts and vocabulary, especially at lower levels. Therefore flash cards are your best tool for success. Make flashcards for all the vocab and concepts and carry them around until you've memorized them.

As for my street cred around this? I'm a high school Science and Biology teacher, and I spend my days teaching physics, biology, chemistry, geology and astronomy to the unwilling masses.
posted by Sustainable Chiles at 7:36 PM on November 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

It depends what you're good at. Reading and absorbing info? Biology, Geology. Crunching numbers and solving straight-up math numbers problems? General Chemistry. Crunching numbers and solving math word problems? Physics.
posted by Xere at 7:42 PM on November 11, 2009

Chemistry is probably the 'real world useful' science. You'll understand what different cleaning solutions actually are, for example. Cooking is all chemistry. Food labels will make some sense. Physics is very fundamental, but I don't think many people use it in their daily lives. Chemistry has some application, though.

It would probably be harder then Geology, but you should consider taking something you might actually get some utility out of.
posted by delmoi at 7:53 PM on November 11, 2009

Chemist here. My college had a "Chemistry for poets" class that many of my arts major friends loved.

Chemistry really depends on the professor. A good chemistry prof will make you love chemistry, a bad prof will sadly make you dislike it.

My brother the arts major took Astronomy 101 and did well, though he was pretty good at math in high school. My roommate is taking Geology and is liking it. Really though, it definitely depends on the prof.
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 7:57 PM on November 11, 2009

"zoology [...] Pretty much just memorization, no experiments or anything like that."

As a research scientist with a zoology BS and PhD I'm going to just pretend you didn't say that.

Chemistry is probably going to be more useful to you long-term, especially if you have to take biology. Physics might be OK if you really like algebra, but it requires memorizing a lot of formulas.
posted by caution live frogs at 8:17 PM on November 11, 2009

nthing Geology. I didn't even really consider it a science; it was more like learning facts about the world. Biology requires you to learn equations concerning population ecology and statistics; geo doesn't normally need such things, so if you're afraid of the math/rote memorization route, geology is a good idea.
posted by opossumnus at 8:27 PM on November 11, 2009

Why not skim the course materials for a few different classes and pick the one that looks easiest?
posted by meta_eli at 8:51 PM on November 11, 2009

nutrition 10? that one was easy, and I learned about my crap diet habits (6k calories/day) and never corrected them! woooo!
posted by wuzandfuzz at 9:14 PM on November 11, 2009

I just want to congratulate you on the Bio. You are really lucky that decision has been taken out of your hands -- that you must and shall take Biology -- because it is teh awesome. Dinosaurs! Cancer! Identical twins! Glow-in-the-dark fish! Stem cells! Evolution! Guts! Plants! Biology is all the most interesting things in the world, lumped into one discipline and... covered with a thin veneer of boring.

So I'll reframe your question in what I hope is an acceptable way -- given that you are going to take Biology, and (in your innocence) are thinking it will not be fun, what other class should you take to ease the pain? You should take Chemistry, and take it before Biology, if possible. Chemistry will make Bio easier to understand, so you can concentrate on the really cool parts.
posted by Methylviolet at 9:16 PM on November 11, 2009

Take the one with the best professor.

Check out the lab commitments--courses like chem can have pretty long labs. Geology, probably not so much.

I found intro geology hard at times, actually, because the professors taught a lot of recent research and the reading would often be a journal article; it was hard to find supplementary sources if you had trouble understanding. Your physics 101 teacher is not going to be presenting cutting-edge research in physics. But really none of these subjects are inherently harder or easier, it's all about the specific material you're covering and the professor's grading policies. None of us can tell you that.

That said, if everyone in the school is presented with the same four choices as you, geology and astronomy may move slower because they will be packed with non-majors satisfying their requirements (most schools don't have a ton of students majoring in astro or geology). Chem on the other hand will have pre-meds.
posted by phoenixy at 9:27 PM on November 11, 2009

Please, please, please listen to the people who are telling you to find out about the professors teaching each of these courses. All of these subjects are accessible enough if you have a good teacher; all can be totally inscrutable if you have a bad one.

I say that as an astronomer/physicist, fwiw. (And, okay, if you are lucky enough to have gifted teachers available to you in all these subjects -- well, of course you take astronomy. Or physics. Not that I'm biased.)
posted by chalkbored at 9:59 PM on November 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

oinopaponton: "Are there pre-meds at your college? If so, figure out which intro courses they take and don't take those-- classes designed for pre-meds have a very steep learning curve by nature (my freshman year GPA is testament to this)."

There's this myth of the wash-out pre-med class where the graders dock points at the drop of a hat and the professors are deliberately and unnecessarily difficult, just to get you out of their department. I haven't seen this class yet, and at this point three years into a biochem major I've taken just about every single one of the pre-med requirements.

In fact, I'm in a biochemistry class that apparently has some ridiculous fraction of pre-meds, to the point where the professors have acknowledged this and picked an MD/PhD for a TA. We get review sessions galore, the TA posts four times the length of the problem sets in hints, clarifications and "background information", and the professors frequently tell you which points will be tested.
posted by d. z. wang at 10:53 PM on November 11, 2009

My college had a "Philosophy of Science" course that counted as hard science credits. It was easy, but I'd lying if I said I got much out of it other than an easy A. Of course, you could make a course like this quite rigorous. So don't just inquire about courses, but find out about the profs teaching them. Who likes to break balls, so to speak.

Intro (i.e., math-less) Physics is often an option as well. (We called it "Physics for Poets.") That I really enjoyed but again, it was a talented professor as opposed to a mediocre one.
posted by bardic at 11:58 PM on November 11, 2009

Chemistry compliments biology really well. It'll help you excel at the cell-and-molecular stuff in the first part of the course.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 12:57 AM on November 12, 2009

Well, obviously I would suggest a geology class. However, go with the class and prof with a good reputation, above all. Having said that:

First, try to get a class in "earth science" or "earth systems science" if you can. If you can get a bit of exposure to how the planet (not just its rocks, but the oceans and atmosphere as well) works, that is likely to be a very worthwhile time.

Second, I feel bad for those folks who took a low-level geology class and felt it was "all about memorization". A good geo or earth science class can expose you to actual, real science and scientific process in an introductory course in a way that no chemistry or biology class can. Its amazing how many years of chemistry you can do and never actually do any science.

Third, as for the "rocks for jocks" knock. Many science departments try to offer a course or two intended for non-majors. Folks in this thread seemed to think that Astronomy was necessarily difficult and math-heavy. I don't think that's necessarily true. For every "Rocks for Jocks" course I've seen, I've noticed as many "Moons for Goons" (or is it "Scopes for dopes"?).

Finally, if you actually want to take a useful class, take a "real" (i.e. quantitative, intended to fulfill more than just a distribution requirement) physics course. Or better yet, a math course.
posted by bumpkin at 2:11 AM on November 12, 2009

Environmental science is great. Not hard not a lot of math required. Not all colleges have it though.

Astronomy can be good too depending on if there are any observatories around.
posted by majortom1981 at 4:24 AM on November 12, 2009

To clarify, I'm not saying this: There's this myth of the wash-out pre-med class where the graders dock points at the drop of a hat and the professors are deliberately and unnecessarily difficult,

I mean that (at my college, at least), there are two intro science tracks: for Biology, there was the one they recommend if you got a 5 on the AP Bio exam (ended up being all pre-meds and a few kids like me who just enjoyed science) and the general, Bio 101 class. The pre-med track isn't designed to make people hate science at all-- it's just way more advanced, requires much more work, and isn't at all sugarcoated. If the OP has these two tracks at her school, I'm saying she'll enjoy the "easier" set of science classes.
posted by oinopaponton at 4:42 AM on November 12, 2009

This doesn't directly address your question, but I can't resist offering some suggestions. I probably don't need to tell you these things, because you are a returning student and so presumably a responsible grown-up. But as someone who taught Chem 101 for several years, and has had more than my share of grown men crying in my office because they're going to flunk the required science course that they put off til the very last term before they *thought* they were going to graduate....

It's OK if you don't like science. It's OK that you think you're never going to use it again. It's OK if you hate the administrators who are making you do this. Your profs have encountered lots of students who feel the same way. They know that you're not going to be a scientist and they are not aiming to turn you into one. But they also have a perspective on the world that you presumably don't yet, and it's a valuable one to at least visit for a while--that's why those requirements exist. Enjoy the opportunity to look at the world a new way for a little while. Doesn't happen very often outside of college.

Be forthright with your prof that you're feeling out of your depths or are "not a science person". Stay on top of the material and be assertive about asking questions as you go along. Material is presented in the way it is for a reason. Don't blow off something early in the course because it seems too nit-picky to be important (I'm talking about you, electron configuration)--if the class is devoting time to it, it matters, and will matter through the rest of the term.

Even if you put in some real effort and still struggle and get crappy scores, your prof is way more likely to cut you slack if s/he knows that you gave it the proverbial college try. If you cower in the back of the room and slink out of class involvement at every opportunity, good luck trying to persuade your prof to err on the side of leniency at the end of the term.

Finally: the natural world is amazing and wonderful. I don't think you'll go wrong choosing any of those classes. It's easy for newcomers to science to feel mired in taking in all the facts that have already been established for any particular field--that idea that science is all about memorization--remember that the facts arise because of trying to *understand* something, and it's the understanding, the facts in context, that are the point. That's what gets people hooked on science. For those of us who have drunk the kool-aid, science inspires more wonder in the world, rather than less.

When folks are advising shopping for profs, I think this is what you really want to look for, someone who can convey the wonder along with the 101-level facts.

Good luck, work hard, and have fun!
posted by Sublimity at 5:02 AM on November 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just take what interests you the most if they offer intro courses in that subject geared to non-science majors. Trying to think of the easiest course might not work esp. because if it holds no interest it will be that much harder to get motivated. Or pretty much exactly what sublimity said.

I was a geology major, so I am incredibly biased, but if you think it is the easiest of the four, you might be in for an unpleasant surprise. There is a fair amount of math in geology. More than people think. My intro course had a lot of it. If there is an earthquake or a tsunami during the semester, get ready for the prof to ask you to try to pinpoint depth , magnitude, etc. Turbulence in rivers and how that carves riverine landscapes, well that is part too.

This might not be the case for an intro level Geology course geared to non science majors, and frankly you might fall in love discovering how the earth changes over time and how mountains are built, or how coastlines are formed.

A lot of math might not be the case in Biology or Chemistry too. All of those have math of course, but it is easier to get an "intelligent laypersons" understanding of it without math than it is with physics or astronomy.

I don't know what kind of career you will wind up in, but as a practical matter, having at least in intro to geology or chemistry under your belt (you *have* to have bio, right?) would work out pretty well for getting a job at a technology company or an environmental company. At least you can show you know a little bit of knowledge about what they do.
posted by xetere at 5:40 AM on November 12, 2009

Take a look at your prospective profs on Rate my profesors - In my experience, it's the teacher that makes or breaks the subject, not necessarily the subject itself.
posted by Orb2069 at 6:55 AM on November 12, 2009

I took 101 in college as an english major for the same reasons mentioned above. I liked it so much I switched to geology that semester.

Later, I helped teach a geo 101 course as a TA in grad school. My students were business majors, interior design majors, journalism majors - just about everything but classically science folks. Take geo and you will be with other people in the same boat, which is nice.

You'll learn about some things you've already seen: mountains, rivers, beaches, etc. It's largely a common sense field, and understanding how things work doesn't take a whole new way of thinking about things (unlike learning how electrons work in a fluorine atom). We also covered township & range and topographic maps, so if you have any experience backpacking you're most of the way there. The odds are good that you'll talk about some "current events", such as global warming or sea level rise, as well.

The dreaded mineralogy terminology at a 101 level won't be too bad. You'll probably only going to cover a few easily identified minerals - perhaps one or two dozen at the most. (As a TA I tried to minimize the impact of mineralogy on grades, as well.)

I sincerely hope that you take geology. It's a good way to get a better understanding of the world that you live in. The view out of an airplane will get significantly more intersting, and you'll never see a mountain the same way again. :)
posted by cr_joe at 7:53 AM on November 12, 2009

Geology. Learn about the world around you in concrete, easy to understand and visualize principles. Chemistry and Physics are way more abstract to me due to the scale of the concepts (i.e. atomic/invisible forces), and I think that's why some people have a tough time with them.

By the way, I was in a similar situation in High School - "you need to take a science class and do well". I was a solid C student (no parents involved/other excuses etc), and ended up with the highest grade in the class and was tutoring an honor student. Now I have a degree in Geology, a professional registration, and I've been working in the Environmental Sciences my whole career and I love it.
posted by Big_B at 9:23 AM on November 12, 2009

Geology! It's fun, easy, and really interesting.

I heard botany was easy too, but it doesn't look like you have that option.
posted by exhilaration at 12:59 PM on November 12, 2009

I've taken all four. Geology was the easiest--by far.

If you have taken any History courses, and you have done well in them... then, especially choose Geology. It is the most accessible, has the shallowest learning curve, and is the most qualitative of the three.

In a standard Geology 101 course, the hardest thing you will probably have to do is to identify 20 or so unlabeled rocks/minerals (maybe less, maybe more). If you are a visual thinker or are good at pattern recognition, this will be easy for you. In my Geology course, half of the labs (out of 16) involved maps, and were relatively easy.

If you have narrowed it down to two, sign up for both, sit-in on a few sessions, and after a couple days, drop the one that intimidates you more.

(Also, Astronomy is almost always a night course. Keep that in mind if you can't or don't want to do night courses.)
posted by capitalist.pig at 9:56 PM on November 13, 2009

Thanks all so much for your advice. I'm awfully tempted to sign up for geology and be done with it, but ultimately I think I will spend some time before Spring semester begins to do some professor shopping and see if there are any science instructors at my school who come highly recommended. Thanks!
posted by madforplaid at 6:51 PM on November 16, 2009

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