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Vol. 4, No. 3, May 2007

Welcome to Engineering Our World, the MIT School of Engineering's free bulletin for alumni and friends. Updated six times yearly, Engineering Our World describes some of the work we're doing at the leading edge of technological change, providing news and articles of the School's major initiatives.Past Issues

The Only Constant is Change

by Dean Thomas L. Magnanti

"The future is unknowable, but the past should give us hope."
      – Winston Churchill

We sometimes take the culture of the MIT School of Engineering—as embodied in a spirit of constant change, innovation, and leadership—for granted. Did this culture arise out of thin air, did some specific signature event spark it, or has the culture arisen gradually, over decades? By examining our roots, we might develop some understanding of these questions. In offering you a brief tour of our past, let me review various aspects of our history: our organizational evolution, the impact of our research and technologies, and our influence on engineering education—indeed even models of engineering education, broadly. Looking through the lens of these historical analyses, we might even develop some understanding of our future.

At the beginning: MIT

Let's start by looking at the original scope and plan of the Institute in late 1864. Back then, the Institute established a "general" or "popular course" as the first department. It comprised grounding in mathematics, physics, mechanics, chemistry, geology and mining. The second department had five so-called "courses of study," intended to serve as routes through MIT. This original educational architecture is how we came about calling our majors "courses" and our subjects "subjects," rather than courses, as at most other universities.

Of those five courses in the second department, three were clearly engineering: mechanical construction engineering, civil and topological engineering, and geology and mining. These all later became engineering departments. The original courses also included architecture, and what was called practical and technical chemistry. Engineering was part of MIT's fabric from the beginning. One of the guiding principles still serves us well today: an MIT education begins with a foundation in underlying sciences combined with more professionally oriented programs in engineering. The specific sciences and engineering would change over time, but the educational philosophy has remained in tact. One curious fact is that mechanical engineering began as Course 1 and civil engineering as Course 2. For some reason, they traded places within a few years. It's hard to imagine why and especially why mechanical engineering might relinquish the honor of being Course 1.