Daniel Marks Cohen
A recent community health study determined that residents of Community District 9, which encompasses 110th to 155th Street on the West Side of Manhattan, experience significant barriers in access to health care. The study reported that slightly over one-sixth of the CD9 population was unable to get medical attention when they needed it. If there is a world-class hospital located at the center of CD9, why are so many people who desperately need medical attention unable to receive it? As Spectator reported last week, West Harlem residents lack sufficient access to medical facilities and hospitals. This challenge is due to the impoverished state of about one-fifth of CD9 residents, the district’s disproportionate number of people with medical conditions, and the presence of only one hospital in the district....
By Daniel Cohen
Homer. Plato. Aristotle. Dante. Goethe. Twain. Longfellow. These are just some of the names Columbians inevitably see when they look up to the sky every day on campus. For some, though, fulfilling all the relevant requirements while finding a way to wedge in a class of personal interest feels like trying to seesaw with an anvil. And I was thinking, following my second meeting with my adviser, how in the world am I supposed to grow familiar with those names throughout my college career if the requirements are so painstakingly carved out for the next four years? As a freshman dreaming about the beauty and significance of biomedical engineering, most likely coupled with pre-medical requirements, I've caught on pretty fast that there's more work than there is time for—that is, if you believe six courses a semester plus a summer term is not a free lunch. Granted, we engineers are required to put up 27 "non-technical" credits, which are largely compensated for by the required CC or LitHum course and Art or Music Humanities—not to mention the University Writing and Economics requirement. Besides, most SEAS students come armed with plenty of AP credits, and what with all the problem sets, these credits render the final requirement—"Three [any non-tech] courses of your own choosing"—a tough sell. For the first time, we are told to make our own decisions, and it's the most exhilarating yet terrifying set of decisions we've had to make. Meanwhile, for us proud SEAS students, the only decision we have to make is whether we want to build bridges, circuits, medical devices, etc., and we're off. This is a bittersweet blessing. While it lends peace of mind and allows us to focus on what we should be doing to develop our skills, it also keeps us from making our own commitments to personal discovery, to our growth as people, and as citizens of the world. Engineering, as President Obama himself has said numerous times, is the most crucial human endeavor on the professional spectrum; America doesn't need more lawyers or businessmen. What America needs now are world-class engineers to build and innovate. But as I was walking away from Le Marteleur outside of Mudd, I was conflicted by the feeling that I wasn't getting an Ivy League education—I was simply amassing a technical background. Most engineers in America don't graduate from SEAS. Most of them don't even come from Ivy League institutions. Why is it that Columbia engineers should only be more distinguishable by their alma mater, and perhaps by an extra humanities class the next professional wasn't subjected to? I imagine graduation on the magnificent Low Plaza and the lawns, looking up at the names etched in stone and realizing that the difference between then and now in terms of what I'd know about these names is simply most of what I overheard as my peers bonded over grit and tears before finals that tested their knowledge of Western literature, culture, and society. Yes, I am taking philosophy this first semester. Yes, I am making my exit with 6 credits towards my non-technical requirements. While my roommate sits, reads, and grows wiser and more thoughtful, I grow more appreciative of the beauty of the sciences. Since I was a child I saw the great human achievement in fields like biomedical engineering—but as a young adult, I see the weight and meaning of the education that Columbia affords to those students who may not heed President Obama's call. I reject the idea that we need to ask Columbians to choose between their jobs and their education. I reject the argument that Columbia engineers are distinguished all that much by their discounted core requirement. What I came for in Columbia, versus CalTech or MIT or anywhere else, was a wholesome, wise education—one where engineers are grown as world-class citizens, not textbooks. And I truly believe that an institution such as this can help its engineers embody alumnus Herman Wouk's words, that "the best things of all human history and thought were inside the rectangle." The author is a first-year in the School of Engineering and Applied sciences....
By Daniel Cohen
Ever since I learned how to read my native Hebrew language's Aleph and Bet I've wondered whether it's possible to learn a language's alphabet on my own. Would I be able to name each letter, recognize the shorter strings of letters that repeat, cross-reference an inordinate amount of literary material—all to learn a completely foreign language? This quandary was often raised at the time Western empires studied the Egyptian hieroglyphics, until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. But putting history aside, let's be honest. When amassing vast amounts of new, highly complex knowledge, especially in more technical classes, shouldn't there be time left for comprehension, and not just the formulaic calculation of a solution? The goal should not be wrenching numbers from the givens. Rather, the purpose behind these technical courses is that ultimately, the student be able to not only foresee but to construct problems and exercises. Unfortunately, following the recent wave of math and science midterms, that does not seem to be the case. In the technical subjects there is an infamous emphasis on "discovery-based" learning. In other words, you are forced to rack your brain for the answer, because the journey is supposedly more valuable than the destination. The philosophy behind this trails back to Jean Piaget and his Constructivist pedagogic theory, which basically assumes that the best learning occurs through personal experience. In other words, the answer is plug-and-chug, trial-and-error, brute force. Under this creed, wasting huge blocks of time over wrong answers and misconceptions of the material is regarded as more intrinsically valuable to learning than good old-fashioned instruction. This means that some classes are taught in the air, and some on paper. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have a recitation section for a class understand the value of meeting to receive basic, pure instruction. But particularly with recitation-rich classes, lectures often devolve to either nebulous conceptualizations or nitty-gritty derivations. This approach raises two concerns: 1) the instruction style and its consequences, and 2) the distortion of ability and the lack of integrity in "curved grades." As I explained above, the crime is that the technical classes aren't actually taught in their boasted learn-by-doing approach. Rather, they try to provide the tools to solve problems. For example, Zumdahl's chemistry textbook does an excellent job of confusing students in both the discovery and the instruction. While it gives never-ending tables, flowcharts, and complex descriptions of simple calculations, it also claims that in chemistry, there is no set way of doing much of anything. Though this is true from a professional's perspective, it is not true for the student who is seeing the material for the first time. That student is looking to master one method, and then move on to the next, rather than "appreciate" the complexity and sink into the abyss of confusion. As an aside, often assigned homework focuses specifically on the topics at hand, and yet the expectation come test-time of applying garden-fresh concepts to problems much more complicated than ever before is a pedagogic absurdity we've long come to terms with. One can argue that such methods test a student's resourcefulness, but ultimately the shady benefit of those methods does not outweigh disproportionate, demoralizing, and simply misguided teaching. The exhilaration of "seeing-all" on one test is quickly forgotten with the horror of "seeing-nothing" on the next. The second issue this argument raises is the problem with the grading policy. The same logic used in the Constructivist pedagogic approach leads to three exam disasters per semester in students' technical classes. The solution is grade "fixing, or "curving" more pleasantly coined. But there is no justification for giving almost half the class a B- or above when the class average is 40 percent. One of three things must happen: Either most of the class should fail, the instructor should do his job better, or the instructor should change the testing style. Because students pay a lot of money to go to class, the latter options are the answer. What is most appropriate for exams, from a standpoint that values integrity as well as students' mental health, is a test that effectively balances knowledge and application, with more emphasis on the prior. Certainly there's reason to emphasize more application as the semester progresses, given the cumulative nature of learning. While at the park the other day, I saw a child riding his bike for the first time without training wheels. Because it was right after the midterm, I was fascinated by how many physics problems one could create with just that example, as well as how much the child must have learned over the summer to achieve this goal. Similarly, the college student who engages in incredibly complex new languages, from math and science to the core language requirement, must be nurtured in his attempt, rather than cast off to recitation sections and long nights of wrangling. William Yeats once said, "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." The author is a first-year in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences....