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


Igniting Passion in Our Students

Dear Faculty Newsletter:

I originally intended to submit my “Free The Endorphins” quasi-poem that I read at the faculty meeting; however, since Tech Talk asked to publish it, and it also ended up on the MIT webpage, I think it has had enough exposure (let me know if you want me to send you a copy). I do apologize to true poets who may cringe at my novice abilities, but it was done with the passion I feel for working with my colleagues and teaching our students.

There are two very important essences I would like to reflect on, given my 15 years as a freshman advisor, my last three years as the Director of the Experimental Study Group, and numerous trips to the CAP because of advisees who get into trouble (freshman through senior): We have such a wide variety of students that there is no one-size-fits-all teaching method/style, and therefore the best thing we can do is offer many different options for students to sample, so they can lock into the mode that most excites their passion.

For example, in 8.01, we should have “normal” 8.01 lectures and special recitations, where the lecture is given by one of our world-class physics professors. Recitations should be taught by faculty/TAs from different departments, and students should be able to move around freely. Thus a student taking 8.01 could not only learn 8.01, they could also sample several different majors. This teaching method could be used in many of the GIRs. In addition, yes we should also have TEAL, and we should also offer 8.01X….perhaps as specific recitation flavors?

With regard to helping freshmen feel less rushed and crazed and more excited about being at MIT, note that theoretically, it should be possible for a student to declare a major in any department IAP sophomore year, and then graduate on time assuming they do not fail any courses. Accordingly I strongly believe we do a great disservice and greatly damp passion in our students by essentially forcing them to select a major midway through their freshman year. We need to advise our students “If you are certain of what you want to major in, great, declare it spring term of freshman year. On the other hand if you are not certain, take your time to take exploratory and/or introductory courses in several different departments and then declare your major end of fall term sophomore year. Beware that a few departments do require you to declare spring term freshman year.”

Indeed, let us encourage students to take spring term freshman year and fall term sophomore year to explore many different majors by taking several of the introductory courses in majors (e.g., 2.001, 6.001, or the exciting new GIR exploratory courses being developed and offered). Then, if the students do major in one of the departments they have sampled, they have already taken the first course; and they also have great breadth in their education. To be successfully marketed, however, each department will have to provide example tracks to graduation assuming students start in the fall or spring terms in their sophomore year. Some departments may not be able to accommodate students who do not start in the fall term sophomore year, but there is no need to force compliance, for students that want to major in that department probably know they do anyway.

And then there is what truly ignites passion, something no course can do: A real meaningful UROP where the student has ownership of an idea and the responsibility to make it into reality.

We should increase the UROP budget by 10x to enable students to sample departments by doing paid UROPs, or to do their own UROP where, for example, they create a Rube Goldberg machine to practice what they learn in one of the GIRs. For example, 8.01UROP => mechanical mousetrap, 8.02UROP => electromagnetic symphony or a better bug zapper, 5.111UROP => chemistry of sports….

Furthermore, we can use the UROP model to give students an exciting, creative option to CIs (which too many students and faculty agree are needed, but loathe the restrictions and regulations). Let a student take a CI course, or let them write up/present what they did for their UROP and submit their work to a CI-review group (for example, add resources to the Writing Program to make this a possibility). In fact, we should have a UROP results symposium (conference?) during the spring weekend when prospective students visit MIT. Students would most likely want to passionately and effectively communicate their results to their potential future peers!

I believe the above will enable us to accomplish what the GIR Task Force identified as the primary goal: ignite passion in our students. The above can start in fall 2007 and can work with the current GIRs or with new GIRs (whatever they may be). I propose that the fleet of new Deans that will soon be arriving should be charged with working together creatively to make some of these ideas happen. If they fail, they will be forced to repeat 8.01, 18.01…

Sincerely, Respectfully, and with Passion,

Alexander H. Slocum
Professor of Mechanical Engineering
Director of Experimental Study Group
Endorphin Releaser

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