The General Institute Requirements (GIRs)
The Case for a Shared Freshman Knowledge Base
First, I would like to compliment the Task Force on the thorough and far-reaching work that has been done to date. This is a complex problem that defies a simple solution. Within the recommendations, the major area of concern, from my point of view, is the plan to have students select five out of the six science and engineering distribution categories. This is problematical, both in general terms (i.e., it allows students to graduate from MIT without any chemistry, or without any biology, surely an undesirable outcome) and in terms of the burden it imposes on the departmental programs, which will have to change significantly in order to accommodate the few students who have decided to omit each of the categories. For example, we in Course 3 can assume, at the moment, that sophomores will have taken at least one chemistry subject, 5.11 or 3.091, and we have designed our sophomore subjects accordingly. However, under the new plan, a few of the incoming sophomores will have decided to omit chemistry in favor of the other five categories. We therefore will have to introduce substantial freshman chemistry content into our departmental program for the benefit of these few students, even though all the other students will have already seen it. Similarly, we will no longer be able to assume any background in biology, or in physics beyond mechanics, and will also have to include elements of these topics within our major.
Including parts of what was freshman chemistry, biology, or physics will require an expansion of our basic core subjects, and therefore a loss in depth in our major as students progress through the remainder of their degree programs.
Additionally, the need to include parts of what was freshman chemistry, biology, or physics will be repetitive and potentially boring for the majority of students who did take the freshman subjects. I would expect that many engineering departments would share the same problem, leading to a great deal of redundant teaching of formerly-freshman science within each major.
One possible option is for us as a department to require students to take physics, chemistry, and biology as three of their five choices as a prerequisite for entering the department, but I am not enthusiastic to endorse this because it requires students to consider their choice of major at a very early stage. Selecting freshman subjects in order to be able to enter a particular major goes against the philosophy of the freshman experience. A far preferable option would be to reduce the element of choice, e.g., to 5/5 categories, so that we can continue to rely on a shared freshman knowledge base, as exists in the current GIRs. We also need to ensure that each subject within a given category contains an agreed subset of topical coverage, so that students will be well prepared for their major irrespective of which particular subject they select from each category.