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Should spill-over rooms be a part of UMass?

There are those classes at this university which hundreds of students struggle to get into because of the outstanding professors that teach them, the intriguing subject matter, or to fill pre-requisites for applying to graduate school. One such class is organic chemistry.

Even social science majors of the world inhale quickly at the words “organic chemistry.” But to take it a step further, should all of us non-science people also know to shutter at the mere enrollment process for the class or at the prospect of simply finding a seat?

For organic chemistry this fall, this is the case. Class capacity: 300. Enrollment total: 356. Three days a week, from 3:35 p.m. to 4:25 p.m. in room 135 of the Integrated Sciences Building, students feverishly take notes, intently listening to the words of their professor, reviewing the “principles of chemical bonding, electronic theory, and acid-based reactions,” while discussing “the most common types of organic molecules and their mechanisms.”

Whoa.

But even worse than the course description, are the lengths to which students must go to secure a spot in their organic chemistry lecture. If every seat of the 300-seat auditorium is filled – assuming there are no broken seats or TA’s sitting down, or spaces in the middle of rows that were left to maintain the appropriate social distance between strangers, that still leaves 56 students completely seat-less. 

A few people sitting in the aisles or standing along the sides is usually okay (though it makes note-taking a challenge), but how in the world can 56 additional students fit themselves into an already packed lecture hall?

Hence, the overflow room. Never in my two plus years at college had I heard of an overflow room for a class – before this. If you can’t get in, oh well, there’s always next semester. But for many University of Massachusetts students who already have demanding schedules as a result of lengthy labs and abounding requirements for their scientific concentrations – or who took time thinking over their decision to apply to medical school – this semester is it.     

So, for the first semester, to deal with the high demand for organic chemistry, the school’s administration decided to experiment. Wishing to meet the need for the course, the “orgo” professor agreed to the idea. The result has been a little frustrating at times.

UMass junior Christine Brydges arrives twenty minutes to a half-an-hour early to class everyday to secure a spot in the main lecture room – the one in which the professor actually teaches. At least one time, there was a question of whether or not there would even be an overflow room for the next class. Fortunately, the overflow room has so far at least managed to house the extra students.

And down to the logistics of the overflow room itself. After some trial and error, the TA’s were able to rig a system using Skype, so that the students could hear the lecture without straining or extendable ears, and over time, Brydges reports, it was even made possible for the overflow students to participate in the class.

A psychology major on the neuroscience track, Brydges plans to attend medical school, like many (if not all) of her peers in the class. Students who need to take organic chemistry include those in the nursing program and anyone who hopes to apply to dental or medical school.

The question is, is it really that impossible to open another section of organic chemistry or find a larger room to accommodate the many students intent on taking the class? With some 18,720 undergraduate students – not to mention graduate students – the allocation of space and resources must be pretty tricky. But situations like this one verge on a little ridiculous.

And though a lot of us do consider our educations a privilege, we usually aren’t thinking of it as one which we have saved for or signed-away for, and which we pay considerably for, that can potentially be taken away because of space constraints.

These students want desperately to take this class so that they can work towards becoming the medical professionals of the future. The professor wants to teach as many students as he can to the point where he causes great stress to himself. And the big problem is space?

A tremendously difficult class that students are willing to pull through – even though it means taking their exams on Friday evenings and spending hours in the library trying to understand the difficult material – is a beautiful thing. So why must it be marred by queues of anxious students forming outside of room 135, creating a fire hazard for the students trying to exit the class held beforehand?

Our education is a privilege, but this is a fine institution of higher learning. And as such, every student enrolled in a class should be able to attend that class without fear of ending up in an extra room tacked on to give them the words on their transcript they require, while potentially skimping on the quality of the learning experience they deserve.

Lauren Rockoff is a Collegian columnist.  She can be reached at lrockoff@student.umass.edu.

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