MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XIX No. 4
February 2007
Grappling with Change
Overview of the Report of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons
Introduction to this Special Issue
Will the Task Force HASS Recommendations Increase Student Apathy?
A "Nerd Track" for MIT?
Reasons to Continue to Require 8.02
Diversity in Foundational Skills
and Knowledge
"Big Ideas" and the High School Asymmetry
More Science, Not Less
Recognizing the First Rate
Five-Out-Of-Six Model is Not Viable for MechE, but Five-Out-Of-Five Model Is
The Changing Nature of "Fundamental"
AP Credit for 8.01 is Appropriate
Arguments for Five-Out-Of-Five
The Case for a Shared Freshman
Knowledge Base
Educating Leaders for a Complex World
Toward a Liberal Scientific and
Technological Education
A Serious Equivocation:
The Issue of Foreign Language Study
Select Data Considered by the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons
Select Data Considered by the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons
The General Institute Requirements (GIRs)
Printable Version

Overview of the Report of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons

Charles Stewart III

The Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons was appointed by former-president Charles M. Vest in the winter of 2003. It was composed of 26 faculty members and five undergraduates. The Task Force was charged with reviewing MIT’s educational mission, deriving from that mission a set of goals for the education of all MIT undergraduates, articulating the content of the curriculum that should be common to the education of all MIT undergraduates, and recommending changes to the MIT curriculum as appropriate.

Following extensive information-gathering and deliberations that spanned two and a half years, the Task Force submitted its report to President Susan Hockfield in October 2006. The report has been discussed at two Institute Faculty meetings and many other settings since then. The purpose of this essay is to help frame the ongoing discussion by providing a general summary of the report.

The report’s touchstone is a series of historic efforts to articulate the educational mission of the Institute, starting at its founding in the Civil War era, stretching to the work of the Task Force on Student Life and Learning in the 1990s.

The founding vision of MIT was the creation of a university that would educate young people so that they could provide leadership in guiding the nation’s burgeoning scientific and technological enterprises toward socially beneficial outcomes. This aspiration is summarized in MIT’s motto, mens et manus – mind and hand. This is a broad vision which measures MIT’s success in terms of what happens both inside and outside the laboratory. MIT’s broad educational mission was reaffirmed, after decades of drift, in the oft-quoted Lewis Committee Report of 1950. This broad vision was most recently articulated by the Task Force on Student Life and Learning, in its 1998 report, when it summarized MIT’s educational mission as

"the advancement of knowledge and education of students in areas that contribute to or prosper in an environment of science and technology. Its mission is to contribute to society through excellence in education, research, and public service, drawing on core strengths in science, engineering, architecture, humanities and social sciences, and management. This mission is accomplished by an educational program combining rigorous academic study and the excitement of research with the support and intellectual stimulation of a diverse campus community."

The present report of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons argues that MIT’s technical education must be regularly reevaluated to remain relevant and peerless in terms of rigor. Because MIT intends to prepare leaders for business, research, government, education, and society at large, the faculty must also prepare MIT students to be fluent in expression, knowledgeable of a wide variety of values and cultural assumptions, intellectually agile, confident in working with and leading groups of people, and socially assured. Therefore, the faculty must also make certain that its education in fields outside of science and engineering remain relevant and rigorous.

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The Task Force report affirms the many ways in which MIT’s common curriculum – the GIRs – has successfully prepared MIT’s graduates for a lifetime of learning and leadership. It also recognizes that changes in the wider context require us to alter this curriculum in some very important ways. These contextual changes are discussed around three major themes.

1. Science and technology are changing

The array of technical material that is fundamental to what scientists and engineers do has only grown since the 1950s, spurred in part by the emergence of disciplinary subjects that were only nascent in the 1950s (like computation). While traditional disciplinary research remains strong at the Institute, areas of research that reside at the boundaries between academic disciplines and defy easy disciplinary categorization – which address problems in areas like medicine, energy, and the environment – are becoming increasingly more important.

2. The world is changing

The impact of science and technology on the lives of all inhabitants on the planet has grown in the past half-century. Scientific literacy and technological innovation are universally recognized as essential preconditions for robust economic development. The effect of science and technology on the lives of human beings is so great that scientific advances are impossible without the active involvement of governments and the popular understanding of science by its citizens. Technological advances in computation and data transmission, transportation, and logistics have made globalization a catchword and a practical reality for which all of society must be prepared.

3. Students are changing

The student of 2007 is not the student of 1957, or even of 1987. Some of the most obvious differences are readily apparent in a brisk walk down MIT’s Infinite Corridor. Students at MIT today have a broader range of life experiences and more diverse secondary education; they arrive with a wider array of career ambitions. They benefit from substantial shifts in society that have opened up opportunities for students who could not even have dreamt of attending MIT in 1957. They have also completed primary and secondary curricula that have emphasized “hands-on” learning, integrated learning, and “making a difference” through education.

In light of these changes, the Task Force report makes major recommendations that can be organized around four topics:

A. Providing greater flexibility in the portions of the GIRs that focuse on science and technology while retaining the rigor that has been the hallmark of these classes. The report proposes the creation of a new eight-subject Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Requirement. Three of these classes (single-variable calculus, multi-variable calculus, and classical mechanics) would continue to be prescribed as is done now. The remaining five classes would be taken from a very small and tightly-regulated number of subjects organized into six foundational technical categories: chemical sciences; computation and engineering; life sciences; mathematics; physical sciences; and project-based experiences. Students would choose classes from five of these six categories. Classes in the final category – project-based experiences – would be learning opportunities that involved either design or creation, leveraging real-world problems to motivate the acquisition of disciplinary knowledge, stressing the cross-disciplinary interactions needed to address design problems.

B. Clarifying and strengthening the portion of the GIRs that focuses on the humanities, arts, and social sciences, and encouraging more cross-school collaboration that highlight issues at the boundaries of technology and society. The report proposes major changes in how the first two years of the HASS Requirement are structured. First-year students would take one of a small number of foundational electives affiliated with a new Freshman Experience Program. These special classes would focus on topics that have attracted great interest in human society and require multiple perspectives to grasp deeply, such as wealth and poverty, democracy, the self, and war and revolution. The remaining three semesters of the first and sophomore years would be devoted to other foundational HASS electives, distributed across the humanities, arts, and social sciences. In addition, study would be undertaken by the faculty about how best to institutionalize collaborations across all five Schools to increase the number of subject offerings about topics at the boundaries of technology and society.

C. Encouraging MIT undergraduates to live and work abroad as an essential feature of an undergraduate education. The report urges an ultimate goal of allowing any MIT undergraduate who wishes to participate in a meaningful experience abroad to do so without financial or academic penalty. An obvious first step toward achieving this goal is building directly upon the international experiences that have already proven successful at MIT, such as the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), the Hyperstudio, the Cambridge-MIT Exchange (CME), the Minor in Applied International Studies, and the Development Lab (D-Lab). The Institute should devote the attention to these programs necessary to move them beyond their entrepreneurial phases. The Institute also should explore yet more opportunities for its undergraduates to study and work abroad.

D. Institutionalizing MIT’s commitment to continual renewal in undergraduate education. In addition to the highly visible changes discussed above, the Task Force report urges a new commitment to building and maintaining MIT’s capacity to continue its educational excellence at the undergraduate level. The Task Force encourages improving the quality of classrooms and the mix of classroom types; enhancing advising for first-year and upper-class students; developing a more unified approach to the first year experience; rationalizing the scheduling of classes; reaffirming MIT’s commitment to the racial, ethnic, gender, and class diversity of its students; enhancing the expertise devoted to improving the curriculum and classroom instruction; broadening the influence of new teaching techniques; and enhancing the capacity of the faculty and administration to share in the responsibility to ensure the continued excellence and ongoing renewal of MIT’s undergraduate educational program.

Even though the Task Force report contains many detailed recommendations, it was not written assuming it would be the last word on the issues it addresses. In the case of the GIR proposals particularly, as a body composed of MIT faculty members, the Task Force recognized that many of its own deliberations would be played out when the faculty-at-large began to consider the same issues. Even among the issues raised in the report that have elicited widespread support, such as improving classrooms and changing our approach to double majors, many details still need to be worked out before concrete proposals can be brought to the floor of the Institute faculty meeting. The report sets an agenda and provides a serious effort at proposing ways to improve MIT’s rich, complicated educational system. It is still left for the faculty as a whole to, first, grapple with the broad issues contained in the report and then, second, to refine these issues into concrete proposals that the faculty as a whole will embrace.

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