The Task Force believes that MIT's educational principles can and must be adapted to meet the new needs of its graduates. An education grounded in the fundamentals of science and engineering remains the best preparation for further professional study and development. Combining a liberal education with technical education, and providing education through research, academic study, and participation in the community, will continue to create new avenues for the intellectual development of students while maintaining MIT's excellence in its core fields.
3.2 Findings: Changing Needs
1. Changing career trajectories
Perhaps the most compelling argument for change at MIT stems from the dramatically different roles its alumni play in society as compared with the role of graduates in decades past. In the past MIT has sought to deliver a professional education through the undergraduate curriculum. Today, however, most undergraduates do not treat a Bachelor of Science as terminal degree; more than 60 percent go on to seek further degrees.10
At the same time, career paths for our graduates are more varied than ever before. Engineering is becoming an integrative and global profession, requiring skills in management and economics, as well as understanding of other cultures. In fields beyond pure science and engineering, MIT's graduates are increasingly in demand for their analytical skills and problem-solving abilities. This demand has attracted many more Ph.D. recipients to careers in business, law, or public policy than in the past. Even bachelor's degree recipients have also been in increasing demand for non-traditional jobs by an economy that puts a premium on problem-solving ability, good judgment, and leadership.
It goes without saying that the increasing demand for MIT's graduates has been a blessing, but it also raises new questions. Should MIT still attempt to provide a professional education for undergraduates in four years? How should undergraduate and graduate curricula be altered to provide the broader skills demanded by students and society? Are faculty adequately prepared to advise students who may well end up in professions far afield from their academic experience? Some of these questions are addressed in this report, whereas others will require more detailed examination by others.
2. Changing demands for skills
MIT has a well-established and rightly-earned reputation for teaching problem-solving and analytical skills. Like most engineering-based educational institutions, MIT has been criticized for not providing adequate preparation in skills like teamwork, communication, and leadership. Many alumni report that we have failed to help them develop the skills necessary to apply their intellect effectively.11 While the informal development of curricula to improve writing, communication, and team skills has worked for many students, much remains to be done. As MIT's bachelor's and advanced degree recipients play new and more diverse roles in society, their need for communication and team skills will only increase. Individual departments have begun to recognize this need, and some have offered more subjects that include team-based problem solving and elements that emphasize the ability to communicate effectively.
3. Pressures to expand the undergraduate curriculum
An educational program designed to develop the qualities of an educated individual cannot, within the limited time of four years, endow them with fully realized professional competence. An MIT education must not attempt to impart knowledge of as many facts of professional practice as possible, but rather impart fundamental knowledge that supports a life-long self-education. The motto "Less is More," coined by the architect Mies van der Rohe, can be a guide to the design of undergraduate curriculum. A limited number of fundamental concepts and professional topics well learned and understood serve the future professional better than a multitude of facts briefly covered.
Although MIT is dedicated to the principles of excellence and limited objectives and a curriculum rooted in the fundamentals, internal and external forces create pressure for expansion of MIT's curriculum. Undergraduate programs at other major universities have gradually expanded their requirements and offerings in mathematics, science and engineering -- traditional MIT strengths -- leading to increased competition for the best students in these areas. Many MIT faculty members wish to include a wider variety of subject material in their classes and departmental programs to keep pace with professional developments in their fields. Both of these pressures are healthy ones; there is no question that MIT must continually reevaluate its core offerings in the context of students' professional needs.
At the same time, however, it is more difficult to prune topics or requirements than to introduce new material. As departments and subjects introduce new topics without necessary adjustments, pace and pressure increases and the overall structure of the curriculum is damaged. Unchecked curricular expansion is at odds with MIT's commitment to excellence and limited objectives, and to teaching the fundamentals of science and engineering. To deliver the best education, MIT must remain focused on the fundamentals, adjusting topics and preventing increases in courseload. MIT must continually assess and revise its whole curriculum, rather than adding requirements piecemeal.
3.3 Findings: Formal Education
4. The General Institute Requirements
MIT's undergraduate curriculum begins with the General Institute Requirements, or GIRs. The GIRs serve several purposes: they provide a background in the fundamentals of science and the humanities; they represent a shared cultural experience that helps define the MIT community, and they provide exposure to a variety of problem-solving methods. A major strength of the current GIR system is its balance between subjects in the humanities, arts, and social sciences, and subjects in mathematics and the physical and life sciences. The balance between these broad groups embodies MIT's commitment to combining a professional education with a liberal education. The balance of formal requirements serves MIT students well, although there is room for improvement in terms of the degree of intellectual commitment students make to non-technical subjects.
At the same time, however, the actual content and structure of the GIRs are not timeless: changes in the way scientists and engineers understand the world demand that the GIRs be continually reviewed and updated. In general, reviews of the GIRs -- whether of the HASS or science curricula -- should ask how well the current subjects contribute to the development of the educated individual. When MIT added the requirement for one subject in biology, it recognized the increasing relevance of the biology in society, and the new demand for graduates who have knowledge of this growing field.
Another societal change that the GIRs have hardly begun to account for is the increasing use of computers in science, engineering, and society. Today's students arrive on campus with far greater proficiency in computers than in the past, and most find ways to update and perfect their practical computer skills through the departmental programs. Computers are now indispensable to answering questions in science and engineering, and the science GIRs should respond to these developments to maintain their strength.
5. Educational technology
What is the appropriate role for new technology in teaching at MIT? There are many unrealized opportunities for enhancing presentations of new concepts via images, graphs, delayed viewing of lectures and lecture demonstrations, and via participation of students from other universities in joint projects, all of which modern technology can provide. Foreign-language subjects and some of the humanities subjects have taken advantage of the versatility of new computational tools. The future will bring library resources, course materials, and instructional tools online, and MIT must be prepared to take advantage of these capabilities. Even further, computers can help people come to terms with difficult, abstract visual problems.
At the same time, however, we must not devalue human interaction. Other universities have the capacity both to compete and cooperate with MIT in offering learning based on educational technology such as distance-learning. MIT's contribution will be the way it brings together the best people with the best technology to produce excellence in education. We must focus on this goal, rather than on the technologies themselves.
6. Teaching innovation
The MIT Faculty is deeply committed to excellence in teaching. With respect to teaching, the research university has both great advantages and disadvantages. Through research, faculty members gain insight into the questions at the frontiers of their fields, enabling them to build this excitement and focus into their teaching and coursework. At the same time, however, information about educational experiments and teaching innovation is not adequately disseminated Institute-wide. In our discussions about educational innovation with faculty throughout the Institute, we found that many exciting experiments were taking place, including a number of subjects that emphasized team-based learning and interdepartmental teaching. However, very few of these are being assessed, recorded, and communicated to other faculty. There is a need to create and support an environment of sharing and analysis of educational innovation.
7. The first year
One problem with the current undergraduate curriculum is the perceived lack of enthusiasm and excitement in the first-year program. Many students who come to MIT with exciting goals and ambitions rapidly become disillusioned about the education they receive here. There are undoubtedly multiple explanations for first-year cynicism. For some, MIT represents the first exposure to hard work. For others, the steady flow of problem sets presents a stark contrast to their expectations of working on interesting projects and to the dreams they came to MIT to fulfill. The large lecture format of many subjects, combined with the small amount of interaction between freshmen and faculty, means that many students have few opportunities to overcome the initial perception that MIT is about drudgery and requirements rather than the thrill of discovery and progress. Finally, many have complained that some of the material in the freshman core is presented in a dry and uninteresting way. Increasing the level of excitement in the first-year program should be a priority in the design of the undergraduate program.
Exposing more students to research and laboratory experience at an earlier stage represents one way to increase the level of interest in the first-year program. Research is central to what MIT is about, but many students do not have real research experiences until late in their undergraduate studies, if then. Indeed, incoming students have had less hands-on laboratory experience in high school than students of a generation ago; they may be more comfortable with computers and calculus than with measurement error or the experimental method. Exposure to research is one way to overcome these deficiencies while adding to the student's overall experience.
There is substantial reason to conclude that bringing research into the curriculum at an earlier stage would improve undergraduate education. Earlier this report discussed the principle of the educational triad of academics, research, and community. In the future, emphasis on the interaction between learning that takes place in these three areas will differentiate MIT's educational product from learning available elsewhere. Studies have shown that students who have had intense interpersonal relationships organized around solving research and academic problems are the most successful.12 Since its founding MIT has provided its students with hands-on laboratory experience, and more recently the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) has provided students with rewarding real-life research experience. Design experiences have also played an important role in undergraduate subjects and in undergraduate life: 2.70 (now called 2.007), 6.270, hacks, and the Tech Model Railroad Club are all legendary for bringing students together to solve design problems and have fun at the same time. Today's challenge is to make research and design experiences an integral part of the undergraduate experience at the earliest possible stage.
9. Management education
More than ever before, students with scientific and engineering training eventually seek positions of managerial and operational authority. The preparation MIT students receive for these roles has not kept pace with the demand. Those in managerial positions require more than technical training in management subjects: skills in communication, problem-solving, and intellectual curiosity are all important. Recently, students have also expressed the desire to obtain backgrounds in the fundamentals of management. In discussions with faculty and students, we learned of the difficulty that students have in enrolling in management subjects, because of the disparity between demand and teaching resources. The Task Force believes that the interest in management subjects has not peaked. Bringing management education into the undergraduate curriculum in a more substantial way is consistent with the principle of the unity of the Faculty. All schools must contribute to the undergraduate program if this principle is to be upheld. In this case, the needs of our students demand it.
3.4 Findings: Informal Settings
10. Informal learning
In many ways, informal learning plays a bigger role in defining an MIT education than the formal curriculum does; hence it is of utmost importance that MIT have an appropriate impact on this type of learning. Informal learning acts as a link between the three areas of the triad. Students who live, study, and work with one another realize the richness of the benefits offered by bringing together academics, research, and community in one place.
At MIT we are tempted to modify the tangible aspects of the curriculum, both because these are easier to grapple with, and because time is in short supply. However, informal learning takes place beyond the realm of the structured curriculum: at meetings between advisors and advisees; at social occasions among tutors, housemasters, and students; at late-night work sessions in the laboratories and computer clusters; and in the evenings in residential common spaces. Through informal, unstructured activities students set priorities and goals, learn the value of intellectual flexibility, make choices about career paths and future learning, and decide what to do with the rest of their lives.
Advisors and mentors who interact with students in all three areas of the triad unify the learning that takes place in each. Yet MIT has precious few advisors who are able to bridge the gaps between research, academics, and community. Students see problems with advising as MIT's greatest weakness, although it is a weakness MIT shares with its peer institutions.13 Academic advising, career services, counseling services, research, and community activities remain largely separate, whereas they should work in concert. Faculty-student interaction -- and advising in particular -- will have to move away from the classroom and office, and into the physical spaces in which research, community activities, and studying take place if the informal connection among academics, research, and community is to be strengthened.
3.5 Academics & Research Recommendations
1. Expand the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), and institute a system of Freshman Advisory Research subjects (FARs) to include offerings from all academic departments.
MIT should set a goal of involving 100 percent of undergraduates in research experiences sometime during their four years on campus. Student participation in MIT's research enterprise is consistent with the principle of learning-by-doing, and is essential to implementing the principle of the educational triad.
To help reach this goal, MIT should institute a new program of Freshman Advisory Research subjects (FARs). The FARs should help increase excitement in first-year program, introduce students to various disciplines, and provide departments outside the first-year program with the opportunity to meet incoming students. Faculty members responsible for teaching FARs should design the experience to be both educational and participatory.
UROP should also be expanded to help meet the target of 100 percent undergraduate participation in research. The program should receive adequate resources from the Institute in terms of funding, staff support, space, and coordination. Providing these resources will enable more faculty members to participate in the program.
2. Provide formal recognition for undergraduate involvement in research, and for faculty participation in research activities involving undergraduates.
In addition to the goal of involving 100 percent of undergraduates in research at some time during their time here, MIT should provide formal recognition for that involvement. There should also be recognition for faculty involvement in programs such as UROP and Freshman Advisory Research subjects. Participation in such activities should be considered in the tenure and promotion process as part of a faculty member's teaching record, and departments should credit faculty members for their involvement.
3. Strengthen the advising system by creating collaborative advising teams.
At MIT, an advisor should be more than a source for suggestions about a student's subject selection: an advisor should be a source of information and guidance about life. Separating academic advising from the stream of students' lives creates an artificial boundary between academics and the rest of the world. To overcome this obstacle, MIT should create advisory teams that can refer students to those most qualified to handle questions related to field and subject choices, career paths, and life decisions. Teams might be composed of faculty, qualified graduate students, academic administrators, and other staff members. Where possible, alumni should play a role within the advising system. Advising should be a collaborative venture: advisors should meet regularly to compare experiences and challenges. Finally, advisory teams should be coordinated and supported with appropriate resources.
4. Institute a system for continually reviewing the undergraduate program.
MIT should institute a regular system of reviewing and updating the undergraduate program. This implies that the GIRs should be examined on a continual basis. Such reviews should seek to adapt MIT's curriculum to the changing needs of society. To cope with changes in particular fields, departments should assess their programs to insure that they remain focused on fundamentals, removing or condensing less important material as new topics become relevant. Finally, today's greatest challenge is to invent ways of integrating MIT's traditional academic program with the learning that takes place within the community and research elements of the educational triad. Doing so will require experimentation, a point that leads directly into the next recommendation.
5. Encourage educational experimentation, especially in the areas of the General Institute Requirements.
The Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP) and the Committee on Curricula (COC) should adopt practices which encourage educational experimentation, such as in the creation of alternative GIR subjects and in the integration of educational technologies. The review and approval process for educational experiments should be liberal in allowing faculty to try out new ideas, but should require assessment and dissemination of results during and after the experiment period. Many successful experiments are not well known and are often re-invented by faculty in other departments or schools. The COC should therefore keep records of experiments and publicize the successes -- in an annual review of educational experiments in the Faculty Newsletter, for example. For this purpose, resources should be made available to enable assessment and dissemination of results to the faculty.
6. Conduct carefully designed experiments in distance learning and educational technology.
Communication links are improving dramatically while their cost is falling. It is not a question whether MIT as an educational institution should be involved in distance-learning and educational technology, but rather how much more and in what new areas. Experiments with educational technology should serve students on campus -- giving them access to lectures, demonstrations, and course Web sites in residences -- as well as students off campus on cooperative assignments. It is important that MIT develop distance learning methodologies in a rational and controlled way, of the quality commensurate with MIT's principle of excellence and limited objectives. In view of the still rapidly evolving technologies, a committed, yet cautious, process of experimentation, evaluation, and dissemination is the proper course of action.
7. Ensure that management subjects are available to all members of the general student body.
An extraordinary effort should be made to allow any student who wants to take management subjects to do so. MIT should ensure that adequate staffing for undergraduate management subjects is provided. Lotteries for management and management-related subjects should be replaced with open enrollment, subject to relevant academic prerequisites. In addition, MIT needs to examine ways of working communication and organizational skills into the curriculum across the Institute.