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Rethinking an MIT Education

The faculty reconsiders the General Institute Requirements.

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 1983 no on in an industrial chemistry lab imagined that an MIT lab might one day look like the one above, planned for the Media Lab extension.

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.

Like both Lewis’s committee and Vest’s task force, the UEC task force drew on the principles that motivated MIT’s genesis. Rogers believed in learning by doing, and in the value of combining a professional education with a basic liberal­-­arts education at the undergraduate level. The UEC task force, which spent two and a half years crafting its recommendations, sought to adapt these principles to the present day.

One goal is to add choice and variety to the core science requirement, which currently includes two semesters of physics, two of calculus, and a semester each of biology and chemistry, plus two electives. The question the UEC task force faced, says Robert Silbey, dean of the School of Science and head of the UEC panel (as well as cochair of Vest’s 1996 panel), is “What are the fundamental [science, math, and engineering] subjects students should be exposed to? We want to signal to students that there is a lot more, that the fundamentals are not simply six [classes].” Under the UEC plan, students would still take two semesters of calculus, but the traditional physics requirement would be shortened to one semester. Each student would then choose a single class in five out of six categories: chemical sciences, computation and engineering, life sciences, mathematics, physical sciences, and project-based first-year experiences. “It is impossible for us in four years to give students everything they need for life,” ­Silbey says. “One of the fundamentals … is that students should leave MIT with a passion for learning.”

The panel felt, however, that the humanities curriculum needed more structure. Students now take eight classes, with requirements meant to ensure breadth and depth; two classes must fulfill a communication requirement. “Freshmen know what they have to do in science,” says task force member ­Deborah Fitzgerald, dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS). But when freshmen choose their classes for the first semester, “in the humanities, it’s ‘Here are 75 classes–pick one.’ We don’t have a clear presence.” The UEC curriculum would require expository writing and one class in each of three categories: humani­ties, arts, and social sciences. One of these three classes would be part of a proposed First-Year Experience Program, a “big ideas” class that would help students make the transition from high-school to university academics. Students would also take four SHASS classes within a concentration of their choice.

A First-Year Experience class on war, for example, might be taught by professors in urban studies, history, and political science. “Each would run a small section with its own reading list on big ideas in their field about war,” says Fitzgerald. “Then the class would come together and hear a luminary talk on their research, see a movie, go on a field trip.” Students might meet Tim O’Brien, the author of the Vietnam War book The Things They Carried; hear a Civil War historian; or meet a solider who served in Iraq.

Such classes should “create a buzz, so students continue the discussion outside class,” says Fitzgerald. She says the humanities school will develop such classes regardless of whether they become a requirement; one motivation is to expose students to the basic methodologies in each of SHASS’s disciplines. Students learn the experimental methods of chemistry in their chemistry labs, she says, but they don’t learn how a historian or an anthropologist approaches a research problem. “Being able to do problem sets is not the only tool you need,” says Fitzgerald. “The ability to perform a critical analysis of a text, to be creative when you’re stuck, to be diplomatic–these are high-level fundamental skills” that the SHASS disciplines foster and that MIT must make sure its students learn.

Susan Silbey, a professor of anthropology studying different approaches to engineering education at four schools, including MIT, agrees. “You can’t serve your client or the nation if you cannot communicate or interpret,” she says. “That’s what you do in the humanities.” As for the social sciences, Silbey (who is married to the School of Science dean) says they teach you about social structures; if you don’t know how they work, they become like invisible walls that you keep running into. The humanities requirement aims to give students a shared set of ideas, concepts, and arguments whose merits they can debate–the common academic experience suggested by the term “educational commons.”

The original MIT curriculum was “notably rich in material that we now ascribe to the Division of Humanities,” the Lewis Committee asserted in 1949. For nearly a century, the freshman and sophomore curriculum was also very rigid. Mathematics, mechanical and freehand drawing, elementary mechanics, and chemistry were required of freshmen in 1865 (MIT’s first year of operation), as were English and French. The first catalogue emphasizes “the acquirement on the part of the students of a habit of clear, precise, and accurate statement of their thoughts on paper.” (It also suggested that students should pick up enough Latin in their free time to read “easy Latin prose.”) Sophomores tackled differential and integral calculus, studied how to navigate by means of compass and sextant, made their first forays into experimental physics, and learned to “detect and prove the presence of any chemical element” and to isolate common acids and bases. They also delved into grammar and composition, continued with drawing and French, and began German. Only then were their minds considered sufficiently developed for professional training in one of MIT’s first six courses: mechanical engineering, civil and topographical engineering, geology and mining engineering, practical chemistry, building and architecture, or general science and literature.

Although MIT went through several shifts in focus–including one emphasizing vocational engineering skills, and another emphasizing basic science and research–it had not methodically reviewed the curricu­lum for nearly a century when Lewis convened his committee. At that time, the Institute was enjoying the public esteem and government funding that followed the contribution of scientists at MIT and elsewhere to the U.S. war effort during World War II. But committee members worried that MIT had yielded to temporary pressures and lost sight of long-term educational goals. Government and private funding were, in their view, driving too much of the Institute’s research. They feared, the museum’s Douglas says, that technology was becoming too centralized under the influence of large companies and the government–and saw that the curricula at MIT and the University of Moscow were remarkably similar. “Could we turn into the Russians inadvertently?” they asked.

Lewis’s committee lamented that MIT had strayed from Rogers’s broad educational vision. MIT’s role in maintaining a democratic society, the committee wrote, was “to encourage initiative, to promote the spirit of free and objective inquiry, to recognize and provide opportunities for unusual interests and aptitudes; in short, to develop men as individu­als who will contribute creatively to our society, in this day when strong forces oppose all deviations from set patterns.” Thanks to the committee’s work, the School of Humanities was established, and humanities requirements–and choices–were increased.

“We were inspired by the Lewis report,” says Fitzgerald of the UEC task force. “Since the report, scholarship has become more atomized; people talk less to others beyond their immediate interests. Few people have learned to think big. It’s hard to do.”

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.

During their final class, Custer and his students reflected on the experience of “test-driving a class,” as Custer puts it. Comparing the class with the lecture classes he took during his first semester, freshman Thomas Moulia said, “It gives you a better idea what doing work in a scientific field would be like.” Expanding such classes to make hands-on learning accessible to more students, Custer says, would require a lot of money and staff, and Sports Physics has been denied further funding. Still, he and his students seem convinced that the hands-on approach is the best way to learn.

The 11 Principles of an MIT Education

The 1998 Task Force on Student Life and Learning summarized MIT’s mission:

Founding Principles

1. The value of useful knowledge

2. Societal responsibility

3. Learning by doing

4. Combining a liberal education with a professional education

Lewis Principles

5. Education as preparation for life

6. The value of fundamentals

7. Excellence and limited objectives

8. Unity of the faculty

Task Force Principles

9. An integrated educational triad of academics, research, and community

10. Intensity, curiosity, and excitement

11. The importance of diversity

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