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A student working in a laboratory. Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

I am not a STEM person. As a PPE and Italian Studies double major, I am happy to leave my application of mathematical and scientific skills in the past as a relic of my high school career. The current Physical World Sector requirements for students in The College of Arts and Sciences, however, force students in non-STEM majors to take STEM courses with high difficulty levels, according to PennCourseReview, for the Physical World Sector. This requirement must be altered.

Penn claims that The Physical World Sector requirement synthesizes the tenets of experimentation, observation, and “significant” mathematical understanding and “provide[s] insight into the content and workings of modern physical science.” The University’s fancily worded description, simply put, says that part of a well-rounded Penn education is the ability to understand the scientific method in the realm of physical science. 

In contrast to this grandiose ideal, a College student in the humanities who completed this requirement disagreed, on the condition of remaining anonymous. They said that, “the classes offered to fulfill this sector requirement are not particularly informative or interesting. The class content and grading is very inconsistent and varies largely on the professor or lecturer teaching the course. There should be a broader range of options offered to fulfill the respective requirements.”

One flaw in The Physical World requirement is that it neglects to acknowledge that Penn students may have already fulfilled this goal in their high school curriculum. Sector requirements have a blanket rule to not accept any advanced placement credit or equivalent like A-Levels, IB, or other examination. Furthermore, Sector requirements cannot be fulfilled by a departmental exam that shows sufficient knowledge in this field. Myself and many other Penn students have undoubtedly satisfied the ultimate goal of The Physical World in high school already.

If Penn wants to justify requiring this coursework, however, to create an even standard across all of its students, then The Physical World requirement should not appear to be so sparse in its course offerings. The College’s description of policies regarding the Sector requirement explains that there are courses intended for both majors and non-majors. The reality is that a majority of the few classes offered under this requirement are technical classes more suited for majors. For Spring 2023, there are 13 courses counting for this College Sector, yet, only three are constructed for non-majors. The remaining nine courses are related to Physics and Chemistry, which most students would consider to be academically rigorous introduction courses for STEM majors, not the average humanities student looking to fulfill a requirement. 

While The Living World Sector also poses a similar problem, given that out of the 14 courses offered, a vast majority are more technical classes better suited for majors, the difficulty level of the non-major courses is significantly more varied. The Physical World Sector’s difficulty levels are consistently high. For example, all of the courses being offered next semester that are popularly considered more accessible to non-majors, like Oceanography, Survey of the Universe, and Introduction to Environmental Science have difficulties ranging from 2.37 to 2.63 on PennCourseReview. The Living World Sector offers a course, Music & The Brain, next semester with a difficulty level of 1.6. By giving students no option but to take a course in an area that may not be of interest with high difficulty, the University is creating unnecessary stress. 

The University, however, has the ability to mend some of these problems. One option would be to replace The Physical World sector entirely, instead perhaps creating a requirement with student feedback in mind would be more useful to the Penn curriculum. If they choose to keep The Physical World as an aspect of the Sector requirements, however, the University should strive to offer a greater variety of options at more varying difficulty levels. Not every student feels comfortable in a STEM-related space; forcing this upon members of The College burdens the curriculum rather than rounding it.  

ISABELLA GLASSMAN is a College senior studying philosophy, politics, and economics and Italian studies from Suffern, N.Y. Her email is