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Again and again, K. C. Binder practiced her starts on MIT’s indoor track, each time taking off cleaner and faster. She’s not a scrappy track-and-field underdog, however, but a freshman in 8.01s, Sports Physics. Learning to keep her knees at a precise 45º angle when she was in the blocks took two weeks, she says, and introduced her to some of the most complex forces in mechanics.

In this experimental course, freshmen learned mechanics by feeling how ideal equations like F = ma worked on their own bodies. After lectures, the class’s five students performed force balance experiments on a climbing wall and experienced dizzying harmonic oscillation on a giant swing. “It helps reinforce the concept,” says freshman Chris Liu of the course’s immersive lab work. “You see the equation, but when you actually feel it, it’s different.”

David Custer, who taught the class, is a lecturer in the Experimental Study Group, which since 1968 has tried out innovative ways of teaching MIT’s core curriculum to 50 freshmen each year. But teachers in the experimental group aren’t the only ones rethinking the curriculum.

A committee of faculty from all the Institute’s schools, plus students and staff, has proposed sweeping changes to the General Institute Requirements for undergraduates–from the classes that make up the science and humanities requirements to the way they are taught. The plan creates flexibility in the core science curriculum (partly by halving the physics requirement), provides structure for the complicated humanities sequence, and emphasizes MIT’s duty to nurture cosmopolitan, creative thinkers. The recommendations of the committee–dubbed the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons (UEC)–have been approved by Susan Hockfield and await the approval of the faculty.

The Institute reduced its physics and math requirements and added science electives in the mid-1960s. But MIT hasn’t undertaken a comprehensive overhaul of the undergraduate curriculum since 1949, when the legendary chemical-engineering professor Warren K. “Doc” Lewis, Class of 1905, led a commission that revamped the curriculum in light of new postwar realities.

Such occasional big-picture reassessments are essential if the Institute is to remain relevant in an ever-changing world. When MIT was founded, after all, the atom was a provisional concept and engineers were men who drove trains. Still, most curriculum changes at MIT have been organic and slow–the rise and fall of departments, the addition of the periodic table to chemistry classes. (MIT predates the periodic table, first published in 1869.) “Institutions are like ocean liners: they don’t turn on a dime,” says Deborah Douglas, curator of science and technology at the MIT Museum.

The current reforms have been percolating since the 1990s. In 1996, then-president Charles Vest called for a comprehensive review of what constituted an MIT education at the turn of the century and appointed a Task Force on Student Life and Learning to undertake that review. The group wrestled with the weakening of fiscal and political support for research universities and the harsh lessons of freshman Scott Krueger’s death from alcohol poisoning in 1998. It looked closely at student life outside the classroom and initiated changes that led to the requirement that all freshmen live on campus. Combining the earlier visions of Institute founder William Barton Rogers and the Lewis Committee, and adding a few ideas of its own, Vest’s task force also laid out 11 principles that define MIT’s educational mission. But with so much ground to cover, it did not develop a detailed plan for the curriculum.

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Credit: Maki and Associates

Tagged: MIT

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