The proposed science core aims to get students thinking bigger earlier. One of its six categories, project-based first-year experiences, would have freshmen dive into realistic problems, such as designing robots or looking at energy issues in Cambridge. Classes would “stress the cross-disciplinary interactions needed to address all aspects of a design problem,” the report says. “This category is particularly ripe for the inclusion of new, interdisciplinary subjects that focus on the use of science and engineering concepts to address emerging societal issues.”
“Students study textbooks, do problem sets. They are always dealing with problems people know the answers to,” says Paul Gray ‘54, SM ‘55, ScD ‘60, who has spent almost his entire adult life at MIT, serving as electrical-engineering professor, dean of engineering, chancellor, president, and chairman of the corporation. “How do you learn when there’s no guide? How do you teach students to learn?”
Gray says similar concerns motivated the establishment of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program in 1969. Originally shepherded by the late physics professor Margaret MacVicar ‘64, ScD ‘67, the program still brings energetic young students into faculty labs, exposing them to the day-to-day life of science and engineering. Gray thinks introducing students to hands-on learning earlier, as the project-based classes would do, is a good idea.
Thinking big also means looking beyond MIT and beyond the United States, says Dean Silbey. “The world is changing. All areas of human intellectual endeavor have become more international,” he says. But the current undergraduate requirements make it very difficult for students to study abroad. The UEC report emphasizes the importance of providing international opportunities, whether through IAP, summer internships abroad, or research or coursework at international science and engineering universities.
Is the MIT ocean liner really ready to turn? Task force members admit that the plan has led to some heated debates. Discussion of the proposed science, math, and engineering core has dominated recent faculty meetings. “Entire schools are saying, ‘This will change our course offerings,’” says Douglas. Steven Lerman, chair of the faculty and professor of civil and environmental engineering, says faculty committees will review the plan throughout the year; he does not expect a vote until next year. Assuming the report passes the faculty vote, it will be up to the Faculty Committee on the Undergraduate Program to refine the task force’s recommendations, at which point any proposal to change degree requirements must pass another faculty vote.
Whether the plan passes smoothly or not, “it’s an institutional value that change is good,” Douglas says. “The drive to solve problems means the Institute is willing to tolerate, sometimes to embrace, agents of change.” One thing Dean Silbey says won’t change, though, is the rigor of the undergraduate requirements, which many see as integral to MIT’s culture. Only Caltech and a few other schools, Silbey says, have requirements as demanding as MIT’s. “We’re so old-fashioned we’re avant-garde,” he says. The panel just wants to update that rigorous MIT education to equip students to tackle some of the most pressing interdisciplinary, international problems of 2007: health-care disparities, global warming, militarism.