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Educational Innovation

Educational Innovation:
Pioneering New Paths Then, Now and in the Future

by Dean Thomas L. Magnanti, Vol. 1, No. 3, May 2004

This is, hands down, the most exciting time in education in my 33 years here at MIT. We're not simply putting a new kind of tire on the same old bicycle; we're actually transforming it into an all-terrain vehicle!

MIT and Engineering. What comes to mind? "New" and "innovative"? A great, vibrant research university? But did you know that MIT, and especially the School of Engineering, has been a great educational innovator as well? In fact, even as I write today, there is excitement all around us as we forge novel paths in engineering education.

In years past, MIT introduced and defined entire fields of instruction, including chemical and aeronautical engineering; developed widely adopted basic textbooks and other course material; and created new approaches to instruction that have transformed engineering education, including the establishment of a fundamental new model -- engineering science -- some 40 years ago. The Institute is also widely recognized for hands-on engineering and its famous design competitions.

And today? I believe that the MIT School of Engineering will continue to lead in defining engineering education and engineering practice in the 21st century for both the nation and the world. Let me tell you why.

Forces for Change and Inspiration

We are all affected by tremendous change: the fast-paced technological advances of the past decade, the continuing evolution of the fields of engineering, and the far-reaching influences and needs of the world around us. As a result, today's students have significantly different needs from those of previous generations. Also as a result, today's faculty have unparalleled opportunities to rethink some of our long-held approaches to education. So, it is a time of great educational ferment, a time to reexamine our learning methods and revise our educational content.

Innovative Programs and Support for New Approaches

Fueling this renaissance in engineering education, the School of Engineering has launched a major initiative to enhance learning. These include:

  • exposing undergraduate students to the world of practice, as well as to underlying fundamentals,
  • developing new approaches to teaching and learning,
  • creating new fields of instruction and new cross-cutting educational experiences,
  • utilizing advanced technology to facilitate learning, and
  • assessing and defining best practices in engineering education.

Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program (UPOP)

Developed in part as a complement to MIT's renowned Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program or "UROP," the Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program or "UPOP" provides students with a better understanding of what engineers actually do. Our students learn that engineers create products, market them, and finance them; that engineers must work in teams and in organizations; and that they must be entrepreneurial. Learning from both management and engineering faculty and from teaching assistants drawn from industry, engineering sophomores learn the basics of engineering practice through an intensive January week of UPOP "boot camp." The UPOP program works with employers to offer special preparatory spring workshops and ensure productive and meaningful internship positions for students in 10-12 week summer practice experiences in industry and government. The program concludes with individualized, reflective post internship debriefings. Now in its third year, UPOP has grown from an enrollment of 70 to close to 200 or about one-third of the engineering sophomore class this year. Our goal is to increase that figure to 70-80%.


Initiated in October 1999 as a five-year research alliance between MIT and Microsoft Research, iCampus sponsors innovative projects that explore new ways to use information technology to enhance learning. One of the most exciting aspects of iCampus project is its scale, bringing together faculty and student expertise from across traditional academic departments and disciplines. iCampus projects have contributed to significant change in teaching and have had widespread impact at MIT:
• Over 300 MIT researchers, including more than 20% of MIT's engineering faculty and instructors have worked on iCampus research projects
• Nearly 100 courses at MIT have been involved in iCampus projects, affecting more than 75% of the graduate and undergraduate student body
• About 400 faculty, staff, graduate and undergraduate students – 10% of all MIT faculty and over 20% of School of Engineering faculty – have worked on an iCampus project.


or "OCW" is perhaps one of the most ambitious projects that MIT – in fact, that any university – has ever undertaken. This initiative will eventually place nearly all of MIT's course materials on the Web, for the world, for free. The online archive currently has 700 courses online and eventually will have about 2000. Through OCW, MIT is truly reaching out to the world.

The d'Arbeloff Fund for Excellence

Named for its creators, MIT alumni Alex ('49) and Brit ('61) d'Arbeloff, The d'Arbeloff Fund for Excellence in MIT Education has sparked a significant number of rich experiments in teaching and learning. For example, one initiative, "Discover Engineering," has created a series of immersive seminars to introduce engineering disciplines and improve the quality of the freshman year at MIT.

Engineering Council for Undergraduate Education (E-CUE)
A recently formed School of Engineering council on best practices in MIT undergraduate engineering education is examining and evaluating educational content and teaching methods. E-CUE also serves as a forum for these issues for the School's departments and divisions, fostering the sharing of ideas and providing coordination for engineering education innovations and developments across the School, as well as with other units both inside and outside MIT.

There's much more to tell

You can see from this broad range of educational innovations and experiments why my faculty colleagues and I are so excited about what we are doing. And even in showcasing a few major thrusts of the School's initiative in this area -- UPOP, iCampus, OCW, the d'Arbeloff Fund, E-CUE -- I haven't come close to giving you the complete picture.

We have programs that reach out to traditionally underserved populations, such as our Minority Introduction to Engineering, Entrepreneurship and Science (MITES) and the Saturday Educational Enrichment and Discovery (SEED) Academy. We also support lifelong learning through several programs in our Professional Education Programs (PEP) office. We have created and are creating new educational programs in biological engineering, engineering systems, computational engineering, and manufacturing. We have significantly changed the content and teaching methods in several departments, including aeronautical, mechanical and materials science engineering.

We are reaching out more broadly to the world. In addition to OCW, our Singapore-MIT Alliance (SMA) is using state-of-the-art technologies to deliver instruction across 12 time zones and 12,000 miles to students at two universities in Singapore, as well as those at MIT. It is the largest interactive distance education collaboration in the world. Another initiative, the Cambridge-MIT Institute (CMI), is exposing students to distinctly different educational experiences and cultures.

On our own campus, we recognize that many innovations in educational approach require innovative physical spaces. An ambitious classroom renovation program is transforming traditional rooms for 21st century teaching and learning, some of which support collaborations and education around the globe. In early May, MIT will celebrate the opening of the extraordinary Ray and Maria Stata Center for Computer, Information, and Intelligence Sciences that combines a state-of-the-art technological infrastructure for research with experimental centers for learning, along with additional spaces geared to promote an active community life.

Continuing to build on what we do well

In the mix of all these wonderful developments, we should keep in mind that effective education need not always be strictly new or innovative. We're trying to blend the best of traditional, lecture-based education with a variety of innovative approaches, many that support learning by doing.

Recognized as a leader in engineering education, the School of Engineering has long taught applied, hands-on engineering. Design competitions in some of our courses and programs have provided an important platform for learning by doing. These include the famed 2.007 robotics competition in mechanical engineering, the robot -design and -building course in electrical engineering and computer science that concludes with a January competition, contests in our MITES program [see "MITES Robotics Competition" video], the $50K Entrepreneurship Competition, and now a new student design competition sponsored through the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN).

In another approach to providing students additional real-world skills, our Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, in collaboration with the MIT Venture Capital and Private Equity Club (VCPE), is launching a new program called "I-Teams." This program will match graduate students from Engineering and the Sloan School of Management with Deshpande Center grant recipients (in the process giving them contact with venture capitalists and entrepreneurs) and help them prepare robust business plans for new ventures based on MIT technologies.

MIT Engineering Education: Leadership, Excellence and Innovation

Throughout its existence, MIT has always been an educational innovator. I believe that the MIT School of Engineering will continue to lead in defining engineering education in the 21st century for both the nation and the world. With the right tools and approaches used to deliver world-class engineering content, our remarkable faculty can engage our equally remarkable students in the spirit of innovation, exploration, and inspiration that have always permeated the walls of MIT. Undertaking the creation and delivery of significantly different learning experiences for students and broadening the reach of engineering education are avenues for transforming our future.