Bascom Hall, with Abe Lincoln in the foreground, on the UW-Madison campus

Ten years ago, the Introduction to American Politics and Government course was one of the most-attended at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Now, it's barely hanging onto a spot on the list of the 100 highest-enrolled courses.

Enrollments in that introductory-level political science course and a race and ethnicity class have dropped more than any others in the last decade.

In the same period, basic computer programming and engineering design classes have taken off in popularity, but none has been able to knock off General Chemistry I as the school's most-popular course.

UW's Office of Academic Planning and Institutional Research each semester compiles a list of the 100 courses with the highest enrollment. For purposes of this story, we looked at the figures for the fall 2005 and fall 2015 semesters and the 54 courses that were ranked in both.

Chemistry 103, the look into the behavior of gases, liquids and solids that's a prerequisite for many upper-level science classes, added 425 students in the last 10 years to stay at No. 1 in the rankings.

Overall, UW-Madison officials have noted a trend toward higher interest in STEM courses — science, technology, engineering and math — as well as health disciplines.

"We still provide students a liberal arts education and have general education that requires breadth," Associate Provost Jocelyn Milner said. "But we do see more students wanting to take those gateway courses into the sciences and then stay around in majors that are sciences."

Introductory-level courses in STEM staples chemistry, biochemistry, computer sciences and engineering had some of the biggest climbs in the rankings between 2005 and 2015.

Biochemistry 501, a junior- and senior-level course, climbed 40 spots to 14th, more than doubling its enrollment to 820 students.

"Biochemistry is a gateway subject to a lot of areas of scientific research," said Brian Fox, chairman of the biochemistry department. "You understand biochemistry and you can be working in the agriculture sector, medicine, energy science, nutrition — quite a few things that would spring from that introductory-level course. I think that partly plays in there."

Other courses haven't been so stable.

Changes in what students have on their transcript as they enter college and departures of teaching personnel are among what department chairs cited as reasons for some of the biggest drops in ranking.

Political Science 104, Introduction to American Politics and Government, has fallen from the eighth-most popular course to 98th in 10 years. It had 917 students enrolled in the fall of 2005; in the fall of 2015, only 271 students took the course.

David Canon, chair of the UW political science department, theorized that the biggest reason for the drop has been a rising number of students who enter UW having completed an Advanced Placement U.S. government exam for college credit.

He pointed to statistics that showed the U.S. government AP test was taken by 282,571 students nationally in 2015, compared to just 129,323 in 2005 and 45,328 in 1997.

If they already got credit for the AP exam, students don't take the intro course at UW, Canon said.

Another factor, he said, was the department's shrinking of discussion sections about seven years ago from 22 students to 17.

"Given that there has not been an increase in funding for teaching assistants to compensate for the decline in the size of the sections, the number of available seats in the overall course was reduced," Canon wrote in an email. "While this change was made to improve the quality of teaching, it also was done to remain competitive with our peer institutions. Our graduate students were working more for less pay than our competitors, so this was one way we could try to remain more competitive."

Canon added that a shrinking of intro to American politics courses is a trend wider than just at the UW. Even though its numbers are falling, UW's political science department still awards one of the highest numbers of degrees at the university.

The 90-spot fall from eighth to 98th in the list of 100 highest-enrolled courses for Poli Sci 104 was the largest between 2005 and 2015 among courses listed on both years' top-100 lists. But it was far from the only one to take a steep drop.

Changes in instructors helped move Sociology 134, Problems of American Racial and Ethnic Minorities, from 15th to 79th in enrollment.

In 2005, the course had six lectures, according to the Fall 2005 timetable, and 680 students. Ten years later, there were just 290 students in two lectures.

Sociology department chair Pamela Oliver said that departures of popular instructors Gary Sandefur (to become dean of the College of Letters and Sciences and, later, to Oklahoma State) and Ruth Lopez Turley (to Rice University) changed the direction of the course.

It is now taught by adjunct instructors, and Oliver said the department is uncomfortable giving them more than 100 or 200 students at a time.

"Since the departure of Turley, we have not had a faculty member whose specialty is race and ethnicity," Oliver wrote in an email. "In addition, being able to do well in the very large lecture format is a talent that only some people have. It requires a very different teaching style from even a 100-person class. Four hundred students had been enrolled for the term Sandefur was scheduled to teach before he left, and we got extra lecturer funds so we could divide these students into several smaller sections that term, but this was a one-time special allocation."

Oliver said there has been some corresponding increase in enrollment in Sociology 170, a faculty-taught class on population problems that she said "has incorporated an emphasis on racial disparities in health and been certified as an ethnic studies course."

Second- and fourth-semester Spanish language courses also were among the 10 biggest drops in ranking.

Spanish 102 fell 57 spots to 95th after a loss of 166 students, and Spanish 204 moved from 26th to 49th, losing 119 students in the enrollment tabulations.

It often can be difficult to give an exact reason for a rise or fall in course enrollment, said Milner, who heads the Office of Academic Planning and Institutional Research and studies the trends in roughly 3,000 classes offered at UW each semester.

"It is hard to make the distinction between when the trend is a consequence of how many seats are actually available, how the course is offered, in contrast to student interest," she said.

A researcher might not notice every big change in demand for a course, Milner said. The movement in STEM courses was noticeable, however.

In 2000, 32 percent of UW-Madison juniors and seniors were enrolled in STEM majors. By 2014, that had risen to 41 percent, according to a 2014 report.

"Given the number of students we have and the tendency for these things to be inelastic ... that's a pretty big change," Milner said.

UW research indicated that most of the growth in STEM majors has taken place since 2008, when the Great Recession changed the country's economic picture and, perhaps, the outlook for careers after school changed for students.

"There is a student interest clearly in that direction," Milner said. "The nationwide speculation is driven by economic considerations, student and family perceptions that that's where the jobs are."

Fox, the biochemistry chair, said it's no coincidence that courses in computer sciences, business law and engineering design had some of the biggest gains in the top-100 ranking between 2005 and 2015.

"Those kinds of gateway classes that get you into something that will go to your next step I think are of interest," he said.

No course climbed more spots between 2005 and 2015 than Computer Sciences 302, Introduction to Programming. It rose from 97th to 17th, adding 477 students for 176 percent growth.

In the fall 2005 semester, the intro to programming course was the only comp sci class in the 100 most-popular courses. Ten years later, six other comp sci classes joined it.

"There has been a big shift in people correctly realizing that computer science is broadly important," Mark Hill, computer sciences department chair, told the Cap Times last fall.

General Business 301 (Business Law) moved up 51 spots in the rankings to 31st with a gain of 222 students. Engineering 160 (Intro to Engineering Design) advanced 47 spots to 32nd.

Non-STEM courses aren't going anywhere, however. No course added more students between 2005 and 2015 than Music 113, Music in Performance, which went from 505 students (ranked 28th) to 1,320 (fifth).

Between the fall 2005 and fall 2015 semesters, total undergraduate enrollment increased by 1,122, or 3.9 percent.

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Changes in UW-Madison course enrollment rankings, 2005-2015

Every semester, the University of Wisconsin-Madison releases its top 100 courses in terms of enrollment. We compared the Fall 2015 semester to the Fall 2005 semester to see how much had changed in the rankings. These are the five biggest downward- and upward-moving courses by ranking.



Source: UW-Madison