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Ivy League students complain engineering course was too hard, required basic physics

‘Discouraged by their experience’

The multicultural teaching cadre of a Brown University engineering class is under fire after numerous students formally complained about a lack of “fundamental instruction” and the “inequitable treatment” of women and students of color.

Twenty-eight students signed on to a letter alleging Professor William Curtin “provided little ‘fundamental instruction that would allow students to grasp’ much of the course’s ‘advanced instruction,’” according to The Brown Daily Herald.

Curtin was the only professor named in the letter, despite “ENGN 0040: Dynamics and Vibrations” having been co-taught by Yue Qi and Miguel Bessa (who are Asian and Latino, respectively). The class had a total of 159 students enrolled this past spring.

According to the complaint, students “who lacked prior knowledge about the course’s content area were ‘left to fend for themselves’ despite the course’s introductory nature.” Student Mina Bahadori, a letter signatory, said “it definitely felt like (Curtin) assumed everyone had taken AP Physics before.”

Bahadori said she “didn’t really learn physics so well” due to having taken the course online in high school.

Student Chloe Chow complained that if a student “come[s] from a school with fewer resources, [they’re] already put at a huge disadvantage.”

Jules Silva, an engineering TA who uses “they/them” pronouns, said the class “caused them emotional and academic stress” and that they were “discouraged by their experience.”

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Silva also said Curtin (pictured) told a (presumably minority) student who had asked to use the restroom during an exam that “you’re taking a while” — an “insinuation of cheating.” On the other hand, the professor allegedly ignored “several white students” who were in the bathroom and on their phones.

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Curtin also was accused of chiding a group of mostly minority females for not being prepared with a project (they said they were “adjusting” their work), but not a group a male students who claimed they were doing the same.

In a joint statement to The Herald, Curtin, Qi and Bessa said the former “made a concentrated effort to provide extra help for all students who struggled to master key concepts” needed for the course, and that they were “very distressed that some students have interpreted our best efforts and intentions in any way that has detracted from their learning experience.”

Dean of Engineering Tejal Desai had responded to the students’ letter by noting she “escalated” the matter to the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity and the Dean of the College, and was “in the process of examining [the] curriculum and inclusive practices.”

Desai told The Herald she also informed the letter signatories they could appeal their grade in the course, but didn’t offer additional information.

According to his faculty page, Curtin’s research interests include “multiscale modeling of mechanical behavior of materials, fracture from continuum down to atomistic and quantum scales,” and “micro- and nano-scale fiber-reinforced composites.”

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IMAGES: Shutterstock.com; Brown U.

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Dave has been writing about education, politics, and entertainment for over 20 years, including a stint at the popular media bias site Newsbusters. He is a retired educator with over 25 years of service and is a member of the National Association of Scholars. Dave holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Delaware.