MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XIX No. 4
February 2007
The Contribution of the Faculty
to the Commons
The State of Undergraduate Advising
The Journey, Not the Arrival
A Global Education for MIT Students
The Broader Education
Flexible Majors in Engineering
On the Pursuit of Beauty at MIT
Welcome to the Machine:
First-Year Advising, Choice, and Credit Limits
A Proposal for an Alternative Framework
The Knowledge Debate
A Twenty-First Century Undergraduate Education for MIT Students
Igniting Passion in Our Students
Getting There From Here
The Challenge of Multidisciplinary Education for Undergraduates
Printable Version

The Commons, the Major, and the First Year

Flexible Majors in Engineering

John H. Lienhard

The Law of Flexibility

One of the recommendations of the Task Force (p. 57, item 4) is that “Departments with large major programs should offer a more flexible degree option that requires fewer subjects.” On page 54 (para. 3), we find that “large” means “larger than the constraints currently embodied in the Regulations of the Faculty”; and, by reference to Section 2.84.b.3 of the Regulations, we find, at last, the threshold of large:

A Departmental program normally [includes] up to 132 units and the equivalent of 11 subjects; but the Committee on Curricula may approve Departmental programs including up to the equivalent of 12 and one-half subjects and 150 units. In addition, Departmental programs may specify or expect up to three subjects that are also used by students to satisfy the General Institute Requirements, with the understanding that the department would allow specified substitutions of closely related subjects in other departments where possible.”

The three GIR subjects normally represent an Institute Lab subject and two REST subjects. Under the Task Force proposal, the Lab requirement will be eliminated, with units left to departments, whereas the REST requirement will be eliminated with units transferred to the SME requirement. So the threshold of large is one subject more than that given above – more than 12 is large! Sections 2.83 and 2.84.b.3 further imply a typical subject size of 12 units.

The Task Force makes reference to Course 2-A (pg. 54, para. 3, line 7) as an example of the envisioned flexible degree. Course 2-A requires the same number of units as Course 2, but leaves the selection of many of the subjects in the hands of the students. We conclude that what is meant by “requires fewer subjects” is that students have more choice, rather than that fewer units are required in the departmental program.

This last point is significant in connection with accreditation. In a separate article, I have noted the accreditation requirements for engineering degrees, specifically 12 engineering subjects and eight basic math and science subjects. The 20 subjects implied would have to be wholly contained in the SME requirement and the departmental program. Since the latter is eight subjects, any accredited “flexible” engineering major will need a departmental program of at least 12 subjects. If the issues raised in my other article are addressed, however, these flexible engineering majors need not exceed 12 subjects.

Why Accredit Flexible Degrees?

After the ME Department obtained accreditation for Course 2-A in 2001, the enrollment jumped from about 20 to about 100 students. Why might this be? Accreditation certifies that a program satisfies national standards for minimum content and quality in engineering education. Graduates of accredited programs are presumed to be competent in their discipline, as opposed to simply being well educated individuals from a prestigious school. In particular, accreditation shows that the flexible degree track is not a “second class” program producing graduates who aren’t quite engineers.

What is the Value of a Flexible Engineering Program?

MIT’s environment is particularly conducive to creative forms of interdisciplinary work, and 2-A gives undergraduates immediate access to an interdisciplinary education. Students obtain a strong foundation in mechanical engineering from eight core MechE subjects, three of which are student selected. Students use an additional 60 units of concentration subjects, often in conjunction with their 48 units of unrestricted electives, to build strength in a complementary area. In early 2006, our 2-A students' concentrations were distributed approximately as follows.

  • 35% – Bioengineering/biomedical engineering
  • 20% – Engineering management
  • 9% – Product development
  • 18% – Other engineering disciplines
  • 18% – Miscellaneous topics, including architecture, sustainable development, and various areas of applied science.

No two students follow exactly the same path through Course 2-A. Students go various routes after graduation, including graduate study, medical or other professional schools, and, of course, employment.

Details of Course 2-A are available here:

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Administrative Issues for Flexible Degrees

One reason that we don’t have a major for every conceivable specialty within engineering is that it’s just too much effort to design and administer that many degree programs. A flexible program like 2-A uses its structure and fixed requirements to ensure coverage of fundamental content and certain elements required by MIT (such as CI-M, REST, and LAB) and by our accreditation board (such as a capstone design subject). It uses the student-selected content to capture the interdisciplinary aims of the program.

The student-selected content requires careful advising and monitoring. Students are required to submit a formal proposal for review.

While most students choose programs that have a clear engineering theme, some students propose concentrations that are essentially minor programs in an unrelated, non-technical area. These are never approved by our department.

Still, interdisciplinary work can broaden the notion of engineering in unusual ways, and so we have no single rule to define what is or is not an acceptable 2-A concentration.

A second administrative problem is that a flexible degree can appear to be a safe-haven for students who are doing poorly in a more narrowly defined major and so desire to transfer into Course 2-A in the late junior or the senior year. Such students may arrive with a scattered set of subjects from previous majors that they ask to use as a 2-A concentration; and they may attempt to complete a large fraction of the sophomore year core of 2-A during the senior year. These tendencies are contrary to the aims of the degree, and we discourage them.

More on Accreditation

Accreditation criteria for engineering degrees have two levels. The basic level includes the 8+12 content requirement mentioned before, and it requires a capstone design experience in which students apply the material learned in their other engineering subjects to design a system under multiple realistic constraints. The higher, program level criteria are what differentiate one type of engineering degree from another – for example, the required learning outcomes for mechanical engineering students are different than those for chemical engineering students.

ABET (our accreditation board) decides which criteria to apply on the basis of which words appear in the degree name on the transcript. For example, if a degree were named “SB as recommended by the Department of Agricultural Engineering,” ABET would be likely to apply the program criteria for agricultural engineering. If, instead, the degree name were “SB in Engineering – Course XXX-A,” ABET might apply only the basic criteria – provided that Course XXX (Agricultural Engineering) had not been promoting the degree as a program in Agricultural Engineering (e.g., via Websites or the MIT Bulletin).

Suppose that Course XXX had a flexible degree that fell under agricultural engineering standards. If the program where innovative (as defined by ABET Policy II.B.12), then some latitude is granted in meeting the program level criteria, provided that graduates can be shown to be “fully qualified to enter the practice of the appropriate discipline.” This, of course, leaves something to subjective judgments by ABET’s program evaluators.

Automotive Engineering

We MIT faculty may sometimes forget that our engineering degrees are Cadillacs in the sense of the content and competence that we expect. Many other accredited schools are producing Chevys in the same size curricula. Within this spectrum, our 2-A students might be thought of as Hot Rods or Funny Cars, or perhaps as one of those rarefied European sports cars that you have to order years before delivery. They are high performance products, but the specs don’t match a standard production model.

John H. Lienhard is the Undergraduate Officer for the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

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