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At the Forefront of Engineering Education:
New Degree Programs at MIT

by Dean Thomas L. Magnanti, Vol. 3, No. 2, March 2006

The extent we are constantly innovating in engineering education at MIT often surprises people.

  • While 40% of all bachelor's degrees in China today are in engineering, only about 5% of those in the U.S. are. (In fact, as a nation, we graduate 50% more M.B.A.s than S.B.s in engineering.)
  • In terms of engineering bachelor's degrees per capita, we grant only 75% as many degrees as a country as we did in 1985.
  • One-half of students intending to major in science and engineering in this country drop out of those majors after their freshman year of college, according to a National Academy of Engineering study.

These sobering statistics have stimulated a national self-examination of educational programs that prepare young people for careers in engineering, science, and technology. Many people are voicing their concerns about this topic of critical importance to our future. I am privileged to have had opportunities to speak about this topic and to highlight some MIT School of Engineering successes: I testified before Congress last May and more recently before the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education. I encourage you to read more about and become involved in the national discourse and planning for improving math and science education.

There are many ways MIT continues to contribute to the national dialogue. In particular, we are helping to stimulate increasing interest in engineering through our pioneering research and our ongoing development of exciting new educational programs. In this context, I would like to share with you a bit about what's happening at MIT in the educational arena. I am unabashedly proud of the enormous educational innovation we've undertaken in recent years. As I've mentioned before [see "Educational Innovation: Pioneering New Paths Then, Now and in the Future"], without a doubt, we are involved in the most exciting time in education in my 35 years as a faculty member at MIT. I think you'll understand and share my exuberance as I list here the many initiatives we've undertaken and describe several new programs we've launched recently.

MIT: An Engine of Educational Innovation

The extent we are constantly innovating in engineering education at MIT often surprises people. We've embarked upon major initiatives that create new pedagogies, that use technology in creative new ways, and otherwise rethink, sometimes in fairly significant ways, how we go about educating our students. Among these are:

  • the d'Arbeloff Fund for Excellence, a special program that funds the development of projects designed to enhance and potentially transform the academic and residential experience of MIT's undergraduate students [Read more];
  • iCampus, the MIT-Microsoft Alliance that has sponsored numerous cooperative projects among students, faculty, and researchers, particularly in Engineering, relating to innovative uses of technology in education;
  • the Singapore-MIT Alliance (SMA), the largest interactive distance education collaboration in the world that uses state-of-the-art synchronous and asynchronous facilities to achieve seamless instruction across 12,000 miles and 12 time zones;
  • the Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program (UPOP), about which I wrote in our last issue;
  • the Engineering Council for Undergraduate Education (E-CUE) , that works internally at MIT to identify, develop, implement, and disseminate best practices in curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment in engineering education, and to serve as a forum for addressing and sharing common issues and concerns in undergraduate engineering education among the School's units; and of course, the most extensive MIT experiment of all,
  • OpenCourseWare (OCW), that makes the MIT faculty's materials used in the teaching of almost all of MIT's undergraduate and graduate courses available on the Web, free of charge, to any user anywhere in the world. Of the 1,550 courses now available through OCW, over one-third (445) are in Engineering.

In addition to these initiatives and alliances, educational innovation is an active part of our day-to-day lives in the School of Engineering. Faculty are constantly developing novel pedagogical approaches to education, creating new subject offerings that strengthen current programs, and designing new disciplines, new fields of study, new majors, and new graduate programs. I can truly say that the pulse of educational innovation beats everywhere at MIT!

New Degree Programs

Just in the last five years, we have established the following new programs, with the first six in the last two years alone:

These new degree offerings represent enormous investments for us. Many of them reflect a shift in the context of engineering, e.g., in the life sciences. They all create new opportunities for our students and help us to lead in educational innovation throughout the engineering profession.

S.B. in Biological Engineering
Last year, the MIT faculty voted to create a program leading to an S.B. in Biological Engineering, the first entirely new curriculum established at the Institute in 29 years. Begun this Spring 2006, the program combines a science foundation in genetics, biochemistry, molecular biology, and cell biology with quantitative, integrative-systems design-oriented engineering principles and approaches.

S.B. in Chemical-Biological Engineering
In Fall 2004, the Department of Chemical Engineering launched a new Bachelor of Science degree in Chemical-Biological Engineering (Course 10B), MIT's first undergraduate engineering degree with modern molecular biology as its core science. It includes broad foundations in both modern chemistry and biology; the three core chemical engineering sciences of thermodynamics, transport phenomena, and kinetics; and the development of engineering problem-solving skills through analysis and synthesis of solutions to complex problems.

S.B. in Mechanical and Ocean Engineering
Shortly after the Departments of Mechanical Engineering and Ocean Engineering merged early last year, the faculty of both disciplines unanimously approved the creation of a new S.B. program. Meeting important goals of the merged department, the new S.B. begun last fall preserves the Ocean Engineering identity at MIT while attracting a greater number of students to a degree that is also in Mechanical Engineering. Designed for students interested in mechanical engineering with specialization in ocean engineering, this program includes a basic grounding in mechanical engineering, plus engineering aspects of ocean sciences, ocean exploration, and the utilization of the oceans for transportation, defense, and energy and mineral resources.

M.Eng. in Manufacturing
At MIT, we have had a vibrant dual master's degree program in the Leaders for Manufacturing program (LFM) and manufacturing programs at the Ph.D. level, but no professional master's program in manufacturing exclusively in engineering. In November 2004, the MIT faculty voted to create a Master of Engineering degree in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. The 12-month program, launched last fall, covers manufacturing physics, manufacturing systems, product design, and elements of business. By adding this new program to an array of manufacturing activities in the School, we are further strengthening one of our historical areas of excellence. This program is offered in conjunction with SMA.

S.M. in Computation for Design and Optimization
In the Fall 2005, the School introduced a new S.M. graduate program in Computation for Design and Optimization. This degree program began its first year with 17 students: five students on the MIT campus and 12 based in Singapore as part of SMA (they are now at MIT for the Spring semester). The interdepartmental program draws faculty from all departments in the School, as well as from the Department of Mathematics and the MIT Sloan School of Management. It is intended to prepare engineers in computational methods and applications in the design and operation of complex engineered systems.

Ph.D. in Computational and Systems Biology
Approved in February 2004, the Institute launched a new graduate program in Computational and Systems Biology (CSB) in the fall of that year. The program is offered by the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, the Department of Biology, and the Biological Engineering division (BE), the program's administrative home. This interdisciplinary program at the interface of biology, engineering, and computer science is the first of its kind in the country. The Computational and Systems Biology (CSB) Ph.D. Program prepares students to become independent and interdisciplinary researchers in post-genomic biology and related fields. It places a strong focus on quantitative methods and modeling, experimental design, and device development.

Ph.D. in Engineering Systems
Established in 1999, the School's Engineering Systems Division (ESD) spans most of the School's units and collaborates with MIT's Sloan School of Management, School of Science, and School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. In 2002-03, ESD developed a Doctor of Philosophy degree program in Engineering Systems that focuses on preparing colleagues who can seed engineering schools with the integrative ideas of engineering systems and advance theory, policy, and practice in this domain.

Many Facets of Educational Innovation

I have focused on one aspect of MIT's innovation in education - the creation of new programs. I could have just as easily discussed many of our exciting new approaches to teaching and learning and new uses of technology in education. I could also have written about the role that MIT plays in the nation's dialogue on education and the large impact we have beyond our four walls. Perhaps another time . . . . For the moment, let me close with a final thought.

Our Continuous Improvement

A number of years ago when I headed the Leaders for Manufacturing (LFM) program, our then president Professor Charles Vest and I met with the LFM governing board. The discussion turned to issues of importance to the world of manufacturing, including the need for continuous improvement. Attending one of his first MIT meetings, Dr. Vest commented that continuous improvement was something quite familiar to us academics; in fact, we're always continually improving our courses. Indeed, it's quite common for faculty members to make innovative changes to their courses not only before the semester begins but to stay up late at night making improvements before the next day's lecture. Continuous improvement in education is part of the fabric of this extraordinary place! With our launching of seven newly created programs and with burgeoning innovations in engineering education, it's no wonder that I feel this is a truly exciting time in education for the Institute.