The Importance of Freshman-Year Projects
Implementing the recommendations of the Task Force on Undergraduate Educational Commons will not be simple, but it affords us an opportunity to address some chronic problems. We admit undergraduates who are enthusiastic about engineering, science, and technology. After a short while at MIT, many students find their zeal is greatly diminished. I personally think this is not necessary and that we can maintain or increase the rigor of an MIT education while also keeping our students excited about the subjects we teach. One major element of the Task Force recommendation would greatly assist in this regard -- a revised set of GIRs could allow freshman to satisfy requirements for graduation while engaging in authentic, project-based experiences.
To illustrate why freshman-year projects are so important, I wish to share an anecdote. Earlier this month, I was contacted by an MIT alumna who was experiencing what she regarded as a personal crisis. She had graduated with an engineering degree, but had chosen a job outside of engineering, in this case, financial services. Now she regrets her choice. She sees fellow graduates who are doing interesting work in engineering and, by comparison, her work seems less challenging and enjoyable. She wants to move back toward engineering, and I encouraged her to do so. I think this particular case is not unusual. Nationwide, roughly half of engineering graduates pursue employment outside of engineering. I suspect many of them moved away from engineering for the wrong reasons.
My conversation with this MIT graduate gave me pause to reflect. Why was it that she developed negative feelings about engineering while at MIT? And what caused her to change her mind? My hypothesis is that engineering in the context of authentic practice was interesting to her all along, but that it was not sufficiently visible to her in her first three years at MIT. In an effort to ensure she had the best possible foundation for subsequent engineering subjects, she was immersed in theory and analysis. Opportunities to experience the integrative, creative aspects of the engineering profession were deferred, causing her to drift away from engineering. When she enrolled in 2.009, the Mechanical Engineering capstone subject, she found that integrating her knowledge to solve real problems can be exciting, but by that time she was already set on a path away from engineering.
A basic assumption of the engineering curriculum at MIT (and at most other universities) is that a foundation of theory and analysis must be established before engaging in creative and integrative experiences. For a large number of our students, this is not the best approach.
Our students need solid theoretical knowledge and analytical skills, but many students will acquire these most effectively if they experience their authentic value in the context of creative, integrative application. Well designed courses in the first year can help bridge the gap between the profession a student eventually wants to practice and the necessary preparation for that profession. For the hundreds of MIT students whose future lies in product development, an engineering design experience in the first year provides a cornerstone that will solidify and integrate their education. Therefore, I strongly support the Task Force recommendation to offer more flexibility including a General Institute Requirement dedicated to project-based subjects.