College of Arts & Sciences

arts&sciences

Doubly Prepared

Students expand their horizons with double majors.

By Jeremy Schwab

Alberto Medina began his journey toward a double major in college while he was still in kindergarten. That’s when he participated in his first science fair. Medina (CAS’13) fell in love with science, a passion he pursued through the ensuing 16 years of science fairs, high school advanced placement classes, the College of Arts & Sciences pre-med program, and a biology major.

Medina also wanted to study abroad and see the world. Having grown up speaking Spanish and English at home, he parlayed his bilingual abilities into a second major in French, another Romance language. He fully immersed himself in French language and culture through the BU Study Abroad program in Grenoble during his sophomore year and BU’s Paris Internship Program his senior year. In Paris he furthered his medical studies by interning at a hospital.

“Having two majors teaches you different ways of thinking,” says Medina. “Even with something like writing—writing in the science world is completely different from writing in the literary world. You can’t be metaphorical in science.”

Undergrads who study multiple disciplines in depth are training their brains to analyze information in different, complementary ways, according to a Vanderbilt University report published last fall. “Double Majors: Influences, Identities, and Impacts” found that double majors often apply knowledge and approaches learned in one major to their work in the other major—thus strengthening their integrative and creative thinking skills. Integrative thinking refers to the ability to make connections across subjects and apply different intellectual frameworks to solve a problem. Creative thinking is the ability to generate unorthodox, original ideas based on the knowledge of two, often very different, disciplines.

The Vanderbilt report found a much higher rate of double majors at top colleges—19 percent at the nine elite institutions studied, including Duke University, Dartmouth College, and Trinity College—versus 9 percent at US colleges overall. The report highlights the benefits of double majoring and raises the question—should students be encouraged or even pushed to double major?

When Medina received a bachelor’s degree in biology and French language and literature in the spring, 22 percent of his CAS graduating class had majored in two or more subjects or earned dual bachelor’s degrees, one from CAS and another from one of BU’s professional schools or colleges. The high rate of double majors at CAS is a by-product of sustained efforts at all levels to encourage interdisciplinary learning. No major takes up more than half of a student’s course credits, and most take up considerably less, allowing for ample room to explore other disciplines. A wide range of structured double majors is offered, such as philosophy and political science or anthropology and religion. And academic advisors help students create course schedules that accommodate multiple majors and minors as well as dual degrees. But students are not pushed to double major; rather, they are encouraged to explore different disciplines so that they learn different ways of solving problems, whether or not they double major. The goal is to prepare them for the challenges that await in an ever-shifting economy.

“A liberal arts and sciences degree is not training for a particular job,” explains Arts & Sciences Dean Virginia Sapiro. “It is providing a foundation that students can use to go into any career. The degree will serve students well, especially now in a world where we don’t know what the job market will be. We don’t know what the technology of the future will be. So they better have minds that understand how to learn. That is the pedagogical value of a liberal arts degree, no matter the major.”

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