October 17, 2008

Cut CALS Classes Incite Student Backlash

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The words of Ezra Cornell’s “any person, any study” have never been so vigorously debated as in the disagreement over the University’s decision to drop three beloved Biological and Environmental Engineering classes.
Prof. Thomas Cook, BEE, has taught BEE 1130: Introduction to Metal Fabrication Techniques, BEE 1140: Introduction to Wood Construction and BEE 1150: Advanced Metal Fabrication Techniques, for almost 24 years. The three classes enroll about 100 students per year from CALS and across the University.
According to Cook, “These courses have been on rocky ground for a long while; because they are not required by any one major on campus [anymore], they are called accessory classes. We got support for a long time from the dean’s office.”[img_assist|nid=32747|title=Holding shop|desc=Prof. Thomas Cook, BEE, who teaches woodworking classes, stands at the spiral-ct surface planer machine in the wood shop in Riley-Robb Hall yesterday. His classes have been cut from CALS curriculum.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
The Biological and Environmental Engineering Department stopped requiring the classes in 1995 and the Department of Landscape Architecture decided to drop them from its list of required classes shortly thereafter. The only major on campus that currently requires these classes is Agricultural Science Education. However, according to CALS administration, these majors are provided with other means to satisfy that content.
Providing for beloved classes that have little place in the established curriculum and for new classes just beginning to develop is a hard line for college administrators to walk.
“We have other majors that require resources; we are doing new things and we don’t have unlimited resources. Our college is having a substantial budget deficit and we are anticipating it for the next few years,” said Prof. Barbara Knuth, natural resources, senior associate dean of CALS.
The metal and wood working classes have attracted a large number of supporters over their years at Cornell. Cook says of his classes, “We support a lot of people on campus, other employees take the courses for advancement in their jobs, we support SAE teams and Habitat for Humanity. We are wide-based and we have quite a following that is just not being considered enough.”
It was this ever-growing group of followers that began circulating a petition on the internet, and within CALS classes, to prevent the disappearance of Cook’s courses. As of press time, the online petition had 1,102 signatures in favor of reinstating the wood and metal classes and a whole host of personal stories and experiences related to the classes.
“There is not a real way to quantify the value in manual labor and engineering skills that can be brought about in a course like this, but offering them is one way that Cornell can remain the best Ivy institution, grounded in real life practical applications of things we as students and practitioners study in theory or policy every day,” wrote Sarah Bellos ’04 on the petition’s website.
Jordan Cole ’09 echoed Bellos’s sentiment in the petition.
“The summer after I took BEE 110, my father and I were harvesting hay on my farm when we suffered a major machinery failure in which $20,000 worth of harvesting equipment was damaged …The hay had to be harvested that day or else we would’ve lost everything and suffered thousands of dollars in lost profits. Using the knowledge I acquired in BEE 110, I successfully repaired the broken parts on the harvester in three hours.”
Comments on the petition indicate that many students are concerned that the classes are being dropped for a purely spatial reason — that the University intends to use the freed-up workshops as storage space.
However, according to Knuth, “The space that is occupied by the metal and woodworking shops is required for other uses, including moves of other programs prompted by a major renovation project in that wing of Riley Robb Hall for a Bioenergy Research Lab, which received outside funding. The Bioenergy Research Lab will serve a number of departments in at least two colleges”.
According to Knuth, because of the current economic struggle, CALS is taking a very hard look at the allocation of finances, including cutting back on other major building renovation projects, reorganizing staff efficiencies and looking at the possibility of making changes to the financial office itself.
As for the concern that CALS is shifting its focus away from “any person, any study” in favor of fewer hands-on classes, Knuth said she didn’t “think that anyone looking at our curriculum could say that we don’t value hands-on learning. We are not getting away from hands-on activities. We have a whole host of hands-on courses like Introduction to Agricultural Machinery, Practicing Sustainable Land Care, Hands-on Horticulture and Woody Plant Identification and Use.”
Knuth added, “We don’t have other types of options for other types of solutions. If another college could find the space and the funding then that could be another option, but I don’t anticipate it.”
In order to address the fact that CALS will no longer offer metal or woodworking classes, the administration suggests looking into similar classes offered at Tompkins, Seneca, Tioga, Broome-Tioga Board of Cooperative Educational Services or at Tompkins Courtland Community College. BOCES offers adult level classes in welding and construction trades; TCC offers a class in materials science, but the college’s 20-minute drive from North Campus may make it difficult for students to manage the trip.
Moreover, Cook and the students who take his class contend that the metal and woodworking classes are one of a kind.
“I don’t really think that there would be any classes that are even close to these because of the diversity of what we do,” Cook said.
In the wood and metal classes, even home repairs can quickly become class projects, Cook said.
“Whether that skill set is wood or metal, they practice and have something that they value for the rest of their life,” Cook said. “We encourage new things, and broken home projects. Bring it in and we will fix it. It gives the students a real life look at how we do those repairs.”
Mickey Tomechko ’09 said, “Mr. Cook has given 24 years of service to this University teaching many students the hands-on skills that are necessary to make a difference in this world and to be, as he likes to say, ‘survivors’: having the know-how to get by in a situation that requires competency of the use of your hands.”
Referring to Cornell’s motto and the necessity to provide various methods of teaching and learning, Cook added, “The courses are all about hands-on experience, people learn at different rates. Some people can read the book and know all about it, but others need to drive that nail to know what’s going to happen.”
The petition to reinstate these classes can be found here