Looking Forward to Changes in the Undergraduate Commons: Perspective from a "Large" Program
I’d like to begin by thanking the Faculty Newsletter for encouraging me to submit a letter for this issue. I also would like to express, belatedly, my appreciation for the outstanding efforts of the faculty who led the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons, and to the FNL for assembling the special issue presenting perspectives on the work of the Task Force and related undergraduate education topics [MIT Faculty Newsletter ,Vol. XIX No. 4, February 2007].
I am also writing as Chair of the Biological Engineering (BE) Undergraduate Programs Committee and former Head of Area 6 (Bioengineering) in Mechanical Engineering to share some perspective on how the discussions initiated by the Task Force over the past two years have shaped the evolution of the new Course 20 SB curriculum and the 2-A Biotrack, and to offer some suggestions for implementation of the recommendations of the Task Force.
Finally, I offer a new proposal for decompressing the first two years of the undergraduate program and hope this proposal can be discussed along with other Task Force recommendations as the faculty consider the ways to implement changes in the GIRs and improve other aspects of the common undergraduate experience.
The BE curriculum was approved as a new SB program in February 2005. At that time, the curriculum included nine new core subjects developed over about six years. Currently, BE has about 30 juniors and about 50 sophomores. Based on the first year of experience (with the Class of 2008) and including input from BE teaching staff and BE undergraduate students, we have revised our curriculum this year with changes approved by the Committee on Curricula (CoC) in October 2006. We are very grateful the Task Force deliberations were proceeding during this pivotal time, as we gained enormous insights from the discussions held in workshops, presentations, and meetings of Task Force members with our department, as well as personal interactions with the Task Force committee members.
Like many other programs in the School of Engineering (SoE), the BE program is “large”; that is, it allows relatively little unrestricted elective time and has a hierarchical structure of required subjects that make it difficult to complete in four years if a student switches in from another major at the end of sophomore year. Like many of my SoE colleagues, I believe that students should have the option to choose such programs of study at MIT (though I remain open to friendly debate on this opinion). Many students thrive in highly-structured programs, and gain additional flexibility in career options upon graduation. With this in mind, BE endorses the general concept of the new
I suggest that departmental programs might achieve flexibility in the first two years by:
Toward these goals, several departments have worked together with BE to collaborate in our undergraduate teaching program. For example, BE and Mechanical Engineering co-developed “Thermodynamics of Biomolecular Systems” (20.110J/2.772J) in 2003 to serve needs in both the BE core curriculum and the 2-A Biotrack. Co-development of this subject further strengthened the BE-ME collaboration begun with the teaching of biomechanics at both the graduate and undergraduate level; indeed, Prof. Rohan Abeyaratne (ME Department Head) and Prof. John Lienhard (ME UG Program Chair) have been very creative in finding ways to leverage teaching between the two departments. Biology then added this subject to their list of subjects that fulfill their departmental thermodynamics requirement, providing flexibility in the sophomore year for students deciding among Course 20, Course 7, and Course 2-A programs. The Chemistry Department proposed an experiment to further increase transparency by co-teaching thermodynamics together with us, combining lectures for the first half of the term with “Physical Chemistry” (5.60) thus allowing students to complete both subjects in one term and giving students additional flexibility for choosing majors through the first half of the fall term of sophomore year. Dean Bob Silbey heroically championed this experiment by volunteering to co-teach this subject (with me and Prof. Darrell Irvine) in the spring of 2005 (and even coming in on Sundays to give tutorials), so that a common syllabus could be developed before launch of the fall 2005 joint subject 20.110J/2.772J/5.601J. Course 2 is currently exploring ways in which this subject may serve in other emerging 2-A tracks such as energy, nanotechnology, and molecular mechanics.
As a third example, the near simultaneous emergence of "Computation and Engineering" as a possible SME GIR and the launch of the new subject 6.00 "Introduction to Computer Science and Programming" stimulated BE to re-think our strategy for teaching basic programming and computation skills in our core curriculum, and to change from our original strategy of including these topics in our own computation subjects (20.180 and 20.181). By the end of the sophomore year, BE students need to master basic programming and algorithmic techniques, and to start developing an understanding of how to build computational models that can be used to understand complex systems. We felt that this material could be most effectively learned in a dedicated 12-unit subject that focuses on these skills without the distraction of discipline-specific material. In a landscape that already includes 1.00 (“Introduction to Computers and Engineering Problem-Solving”) and the new 6.00, there is little compelling reason for my department to offer a separate subject (or subjects) covering this foundational material. The predominant programming language used in upper-level BE subjects is Python, and algorithmic approaches to problem-solving are important; hence, for the average student the Python-based subject 6.00 is an appropriate choice. Prof. John Guttag, who developed 6.00 and taught it in fall 2006, was stimulated in part by the needs of current Course 20 sophomores to teach 6.00 again this spring (6.00 has also attracted freshmen this term). Prof. Ernest Fraenkel from Course 20 participated in teaching 6.00 this term, and contributed new lectures on data analysis and probability, mathematics topics of importance to BE (and other MIT majors) that are not covered in the canonical 18.01/18.02/18.03 series. The EECS Department has a commitment to continue to develop 6.00 as a foundational course offered both fall and spring terms. We thus cancelled the BE subjects 20.180/20.181 (each six units) in favor of requiring 6.00 (or equivalent) for our future majors. The availability of the 6.00 lecture notes and problem sets online facilitates reference to the subject material later in our curriculum for students who took a substitute subject (e.g., 1.00) in the sophomore year.
Finally, I offer a proposal for decompressing the first two undergraduate years and increasing student exposure to different possible majors before being asked to commit to one:
I propose that we move the deadline for declaring a major from the end of the first year to the end of fall term sophomore year, and feature choice of major activities prominently in the fall term for as-yet-undecided sophomores.
This proposal is based on two years of experience with a sophomore admissions process for entry into the Course 20 SB program.
The BE SB program was launched with resources to accommodate ~25 students per year, with expectations that resources would be increased, if needed, to accommodate demand. Because other schools that have launched “bioengineering” undergraduate programs in recent years have seen very large enrollments, the Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP) and CoC approved a five-year plan to allow enrollment management in BE should demand for the major exceed the available resources. This plan, developed over a two-year period with CUP, CoC, and students enrolled in the Biomedical Engineering minor, requires students to apply for admission to the BE undergraduate program at the end of fall term sophomore year after completion of a set of required subjects. The plan also allows for my department to conduct a random lottery to select students for available slots if demand for the major is excessive. Although the department has thus far been able to accept all applicants who met the requirements, we encouraged students to stay on track for an alternate major should a BE lottery be required.
We scheduled the BE required subject, (“Thermodynamics of Biomolecular Systems”) at a time that would not conflict with required fall term sophomore subjects for most majors complementary to BE (e.g, Courses 2, 3, 6, 10). We found that a majority of students who indicated a serious interest in BE at the end of their first year indeed applied to and ultimately enrolled in BE, and their experiences during fall term sophomore year strengthened their commitment. Roughly 20% of the students who registered for our thermodynamics subject at the beginning of fall term with intentions to apply to BE opted for a different major after learning more about each option through coursework and discussions with faculty and other students. Likewise, many students who enrolled in the subject without previously considering BE as a major decided to switch in to BE at the end of the term. Thus, in our experience, roughly a third of students needed additional flexibility during the first term of their sophomore year to firm up their decision about their choice of major. (I would be interested in hearing from those who have other estimates of the choice of major experience.)
Framing the issues
Currently, students can remain “undeclared” for their entire sophomore year, and retain their freshman advisor or pick another advisor, so why am I proposing that MIT consider moving the formal deadline for the first declaration of major to fall term of sophomore year? First, doing so may drive the kind of structural changes I suggest for “large” programs; i.e., departments will be more motivated to structure their curricula to accommodate students who switch in to their programs midway through sophomore year, as it is expected that about 1/3 of students may start sophomore year undecided and undeclared. Second, doing so may drive the development of better advising and activities for students who need more time and information before they decide on their major. I expect that even with a formal change of deadline to sophomore year, most MIT students may still want to declare a major at the end of freshman year, but I would like to delay the formal process to encourage them to wait. The intent of the proposal is to provide formal institutional support for that fraction of first-year students who need more time to explore their options.
Some thoughts on implementation
How can this possibly work, given that it potentially increases the workload of freshman advisors, at a time when MIT is trying to recruit more faculty to serve as first-year advisors? Perhaps the cultural change in the sophomore year may work to strengthen ties between faculty in the departments and freshman year advisors, by forcing a hybrid advising system in the fall term for at least some sophomores. Biological Engineering has experimented with a modest version of such a hybrid system: BE does not have a formal advising process for fall-term sophomores (since students cannot declare BE until the end of fall term), but holds advising events before and during fall term (e.g., formal information sessions, student-faculty dinners off campus), and connects students individually with potential advisors if they wish, recognizing that many students are in a need-for-more-info mode in fall term. Our ad hoc experiment is clearly idiosyncratic, and I am not in a position to address all the organizational and administrative challenges that such a hybrid system implies. But I hope my ideas start a discussion about concrete steps that might be taken to resolve the formidable advising issues more of us will face as a new set of GIRs is introduced.
In conclusion, I reiterate my appreciation to the members of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons, and especially to Dean Bob Silbey, Dean Diana Henderson, and Dean Peggy Enders, for many stimulating discussions on undergraduate education and for providing extraordinary leadership and vision in future directions for MIT education. I look forward to joining my colleagues in further collegial discussions as we move toward more concrete plans for implementation of the Task Force recommendations.