Part III: Curriculum

cur.ric.u.lum \-l*m\ \-l*\ n or cur.ric.u.la also curriculums [NL, fr. L, running, fr. currere] p1 1: The courses offered by an educational institution or one of its branches 2: a set of courses

Since its founding in the mid-19th century, the MIT education has been based on the principle of learning by doing. Consequently the curriculum has framed a unique approach to education which stresses the importance of understanding fundamentals and applying that knowledge to solve problems facing society. In essence, the MIT curriculum aims to teach students how to observe, analyze, deduce, extrapolate, and solve. MIT graduates are renowned for their problem-solving skills which has led to their great demand in world job markets.

Modern day changes in society are demonstrating that education has begun to span more than fundamentals and problem-solving. Industry is demanding more emphasis on skills once thought peripheral and inessential to the working environment. The teamwork concept is becoming a leading methodology for businesses. The increase in communications tools places more stress on presentation and communication skills. As if to complicate matters, fields of study now cover incredible breadth of topics many of which are deeply developed in their own right. This provides two courses of action: limit the level of exposure to material or specialize in extremely specific regions of study.

Currently, there is a great deal of excitement and discussion amongst educators as regards the development and evaluation of educational technologies such as distance learning and internet-based teaching. These new ways of educating will not be able to provide the broadening life skills which we hope to see MIT provide. While technology is changing the methods used to convey knowledge, a residence-based education is the only method by which our educational philosophy can be fully realized. Further, while distance learning methods may be able to provide adequate coverage of introductory material, it is unlikely that they will be able to provide the advanced education (especially the laboratory experience) provided at MIT. Therefore, the rise of technology-based information transfer will optimally be used to help augment the pedagogy at MIT. Even more importantly, the value of a residence-based MIT education will likely increase as other institutions embrace these lower cost alternatives.

The concerns we are facing due to the changes of the last century are by no means unique to MIT. However, it is clear that many issues need to be examined in order to determine whether the current curriculum is the best tool for delivering the educational necessities of today's students. These and other issues will be essential to our discussion and analysis of the MIT curriculum.

Another concern about the curriculum is the amount of information packed into the current curriculum. Both professors and students seem to want to cover too many subjects. The students seem to be shortsighted in this respect at times, many requiring that what they learn be directly useful in their future job. Unfortunately, they are often looking at the education which will be needed for their first job and not necessarily the education which will help them adapt to their developing career. This is not to say that MIT graduates have stagnant, low-level career paths. Rather, the success of MIT graduates seems to be in spite of a curriculum which encourages such shortsightedness. The MIT curriculum ought to be structured so that every student can gain the skills needed for a wealth of career paths. In order to frame discussion about the curriculum, four areas of discussion seem appropriate: breadth versus depth in degree programs (and syllabi), flexibility in educational offerings, the first-year program, and proper structure of the Humanities Requirement.

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3.1 Breadth v. Depth

"MIT teaches us how to work hard and think well."
"Some people come in without knowing what they want to do, and may never find out because they don't have the time to breathe."

The two student quotes from above elucidate the fundamental clash which occurs in the MIT curriculum. One of the greatest aspects of the MIT education is the ability to learn how to handle intense pace and pressure and perform well under such conditions. However, this level of pace and pressure forces people to become regimented, suppresses exploration, and moves the focus away from education and toward an exercise in survival tactics. MIT cannot give up its hard working and intense nature. However, it is not obvious that the current structure is the best mechanism for learning the ability to cope with intense pace and pressure.

As the educational initiatives for the future develop, it seems apparent that in some cases MIT students are too conservative in what they expect to gain from their education at MIT. In order to prepare students for life, it seems that the degree programs (and course syllabi) should be broad in their coverage of the discipline. A focus on key concepts and methods of analysis and learning will far better prepare MIT students for the life ahead of them than a focus on learning specifics. The process of learning specialized knowledge is more important then the specialized knowledge itself.

MIT's academic curriculum should incorporate more than material studies. Classes should be structured as to promote leadership, team dynamics, management, speaking and writing skills. These entities are currently integrated into very few courses - but are skills necessary upon entry into industry and the community-at-large. There are a number of strengths in the current MIT curriculum. Students enjoy MIT's environment of collaboration, and learn from one another. The 'bible' system, by which students archive their work on a particular class and pass it on to the next group of students when they need help, is supportive and helpful. As mentioned above, one of the most valuable assets obtained by MIT students is the ability to attack difficult problems and the confidence that they can solve such intimidating problems. Project laboratories are extremely useful for exposing MIT students to teamwork and high-end application of their knowledge, but in a number of cases exposure to basic laboratory methods and techniques is missing.

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3.2 Flexibility in Education

Although many students have expressed satisfaction with the fact that they can major in engineering without giving up the humanities, some have nevertheless expressed concerns about the current curriculum. There is little variety in the choices of MIT majors and minors. Students feel that major programs should also have corresponding minor programs to allow opportunities for students seeking only limited exposure to academic field (such as various engineering disciplines or management, for example). Some students would like more flexibility to explore individualized programs which they can define themselves. Other s perceive that MIT’s strict curriculum results in excessive requirements, leaves inadequate room for exploration, and does not effectively teach leadership.

The spread of undergraduate students among departments demonstrates key strengths in the sciences and engineering and a lack of student participation and recognition in many of the humanities and social science departments. MIT's reputation and inclination seem to build this observable bias although many of these departments are ranked among the top departments in the world.

Recently, Admissions Office staff members noted that very few MIT graduates are involved in governmental political decision-making. Since MIT is by majority a technical school, perhaps its students are less interested in pursuing political and legislative careers. Although technology is becoming integral to everyday tasks, very few individuals with both technological and political background are present in these decision centers. Given that technology is becoming a major site of legal activity and social impact, some suggest that MIT should have a law school or department specializing in technological issues. This argument can be expanded to include other professional disciplines into which science and technology seem to be extending their influence (e.g., medicine and government). Students not wishing to become engineers or scientists should also be encouraged to come to MIT for an education in these disciplines, flavored by MIT's science and engineering bent. This blueprint is largely the method by which the Sloan School of Management has developed.

However, one danger of moving toward inclusion of these professional schools is that they may become isolated from the rest of MIT, which should not be allowed if they are to help expand MIT's reach. MIT has much to offer these professional disciplines, and, in turn, MIT can learn a great deal from them as well. This symbiotic relationship requires a free flow of students between the schools in the same manner that the current schools have a free flow. This caution comes specifically from the current experiences of students who are unhappy with lottery system, claiming that it is difficult to obtain enrollment in many classes, especially at the Sloan School. Many students have expressed frustration about paying for an education and not being allowed to participate in courses.

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3.3 First-Year Program

The freshman year has a significant impact on decisions made in subsequent years. This period allows the incoming high school student to adjust to the college environment, to come up to speed on fundamental topics necessary for future classes, and to begin to explore an intended major/ minor/concentration.

The first year is the only ‘structured’ year in the sense that students’ course loads are limited and all classes are taken under a pass/no-record status. Generally, the freshman program receives good reviews. However, some students feel limited by the imposed credit limit while others are concerned that the pass/no-record encourages poor study habits (which can adversely affect students once they become sophomores). This grading system may also promote a higher failure rate since students are not pushed to work as hard. Failing freshmen classes may demoralize first-year students. On a positive note, some students felt that the grading system allows for experimentation in study habits and allows students opportunities to learn what they need to know without having the grade pressures. Some students feel that departmental classes outside of the freshmen core should not be given pass/no-record status, as their foundation is important and should be studied more rigorously.

Some students perceive that the math and science core restricts their course options, while their Humanities opportunities are more diverse. Perhaps these two emphases should be reversed. Allowing first year students to explore the sciences may inject more excitement into the first year, and focusing the humanities requirement may improve its educational value.

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3.4 Humanities Requirement

The Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences Distribution (HASS-D) requirements, while encouraging academic enrichment, are viewed by some students as restrictive and un-interesting. Students who determine their HASS courses based on their schedule (rather than making room for the classes which may be the most educationally profitable) do not receive as much educational value from the HASS requirement as they should. In this regard, although students indeed receive a reasonable humanities education, there is room for improvement.

One proposed improvement is a return to a Humanities Core similar to the one recommended by the Committee on the Educational Survey. Students would begin with survey classes introducing important basic elements of the Humanities (which are, incidentally, difficult to delineate), followed by a more concentrated look into areas such as economics, political science, philosophy, etc.. This core could presumably be completed in the same number of classes as the current HASS requirement, and perhaps allow for a couple of exploratory classes. The educational value of such a system over the current structure is that many of the ideals underlying a quality education (citizenship, wisdom, tolerance and argumentative reasoning) are most properly introduced through Humanities courses. This does not mean that these courses are purely tools for teaching citizenship, but teaching them as a core would strengthen the manner in which the Humanities requirement meets the educational goals called for in this report.

Another proposal specifically concerns graduate education. It is often the case that graduate education is framed in such a narrow context that enrichment and education outside one's specialty is not required and is often discouraged. When graduate students leave MIT, they are entering the same world as undergraduates, although typically at a different level. Consequently, graduate students should be provided the same ideals of education as undergraduate students. It is not sufficient to assume that this education has been completed at the undergraduate level. MIT should augment the education of graduate students in these crucial areas. This will insure that MIT is turning out the best graduates and arm these graduates with the tools that they will need for future success.


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Updated 2/12/98