MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXI No. 1
September / October 2008
Silence of the Lions
MIT's New Supercomputing Network
Problems in Evaluating
Four-Year Colleges
Agenda Items: New and Old
An Update on the Educational Commons Subcommittee
Teaching this fall? You should know . . .
Moving From Two Degrees to
Double Majors
MIT 4th Best College,
Top Engineering School
Darwin Bicentenntial Events
Planned at MIT
What is the Global Education and Career Development Center?
The First Step Toward Solving Global Warming: Getting MIT to Listen
MISTI Announces the
MISTI Global Seed Funds
Workplace 2.0: Improving Generativity, Creativity, and Faculty Quality of Life
Why So Few Faculty
are Involved in Service
Research Expenditures by Primary Sponsor (1999-2008)
Printable Version

An Update on the Educational Commons Subcommittee

Robert Redwine and Charles Stewart III

The Educational Commons Subcommittee (ECS) is a group of faculty appointed by the Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP) to extend and refine the work discussed in the Report of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons. ECS Membership includes: Robert Redwine (Physics), co-chair, Charles Stewart (Political Science), co-chair, John Fernandez (Architecture), Tomas Lozano-Perez (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science), Dava Newman (Aeronautics and Astronautics, Engineering Systems Division), Shreyes Seshasai (student, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science), JoAnne Yates (Management), Dennis Freeman (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science), ex-officio (CUP), Diana Henderson (Literature),
ex-officio (DUE)

We understood our charge to be one essentially of reviewing and refining, with the ultimate goal of proposing to the faculty, a set of concrete changes to the general MIT undergraduate curriculum.

Our foundation was the final Report of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons, including the background deliberations and research that went into writing that report. The Task Force engaged in a comprehensive review of the undergraduate educational experience at MIT that extended over two-and-a-half years, and we felt no need to re-do the Task Force’s work.

The final report of the Task Force covered a range of topics. Some of these are presently being attended to outside of our deliberations, including: global education, classrooms and scheduling, advising and mentoring, diversity, and change to double majors from double degrees. [See “Moving from Two Degrees to Double Majors,” in this issue of the Newsletter.]

While the charge of this Subcommittee is to recommend changes to MIT’s policies and regulations concerning undergraduate education using the Task Force Report as its starting point, we have focused our efforts, and thus the substance of our work, on the Science, Math, and Engineering Requirement; the HASS Requirement; and faculty governance issues related to the GIRs.

The release of the Task Force report engendered a lively reaction from the MIT community, expressed in many settings, including Institute faculty meetings, a special edition of the Faculty Newsletter in February 2007, and ad hoc meetings with departments, faculty committees, and other interested parties. This feedback has greatly influenced our work, and we commented explicitly on it in our Interim Report (May, 2008). In addition, we met anew with many of the same groups that gave initial input to the Task Force and that provided feedback after its report was issued. The response to the Task Force’s final report demonstrated that further work was needed to reconcile the structure of the GIRs with the dynamic challenges facing undergraduate education at MIT. The most important of these outstanding issues may be summarized with the following questions:

  1. How can we introduce more opportunities for active learning for all MIT undergraduates?
  2. If we are to introduce a new element into the GIRs, which one(s) should it be?
  3. How can we create an environment in which attention to issues of culture and society hold their own within the GIRs, while maintaining the cherished flexibility currently structured into the HASS Requirement?
  4. How can we create greater flexibility for students and faculty in the science core without losing the valuable feature of the current core that, regardless of which specific classes students take to fulfill the requirement, they are prepared to begin work toward any major at the Institute?
  5. How can we manage the GIRs to best balance creativity and innovation with predictability and coherence?
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We devoted most of our attention to these questions over the past nine months in weekly meetings and over the summer in working groups that included broader faculty participation. We developed several goals for the revised GIRs. Because many individuals expressed concerns about losing material currently in the GIRs, preserving a common core of material that departments can count on became a primary focus during our discussions about curricular change. At the same time, we wanted to provide opportunities and mechanisms for evolution of content and innovative teaching and learning. We considered the student perspective, particularly in their first year, trying to give students a more active role in their education by providing some freedom to explore personal interests and some flexibility in their choices about subjects.

These deliberations led us to focus on the following set of recommendations, which are detailed in the Interim Report:

  • Science, Math, and Engineering Requirement (SME). The SME portion of the GIRs should be changed by: (1) Establishing “flavors” in the existing GIRs to encourage flexibility and innovation in teaching the traditional core material. Flavors, which focus on core knowledge in each subject, allow the introduction of contemporary material or different pedagogies or discipline-specific examples while maintaining the prerequisite value of the GIRs. The existing biology GIR is a good example of flavors. (2) Establishing a new category of required subject, Elements of Design, which will include broad design-related knowledge such as dealing with complexity, approximation, and the design process that will be relevant for any student at MIT. (3) Establishing a new type of GIR, SME Foundations, a small group of six- or 12-unit subjects which would be valuable for all students and which will also provide prerequisite value to departmental programs. Examples of subjects in this category might include probability, statistics, differential equations, linear algebra, thermodynamics, and computation.
  • Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (HASS) Requirement. The HASS portion of the GIRs should be changed by (1) Establishing a new type of class intended for, but not restricted to, first-year students that will explore questions and problems of perennial human concern. Some of these subjects, now termed "First-Year Focus" classes, have already been offered on an experimental basis, and more are being developed. (2) Simplifying the distribution requirement to three categories (Humanities, Arts, Social Sciences) and abolishing the separate category of HASS-D subjects. (3) Continuing the development of CI-H subjects, taking into account the findings of the assessment by the Subcommittee on the Communication Requirement (SOCR). The concentration requirement remains the same.
  • Governance. To govern and encourage continual innovation of the GIRs, the Committee on the Undergraduate Program should establish a two new subcommittees, one on the SME Requirement and the other on the HASS Requirement. These subcommittees would assist in the transition from the old to the new GIRs, and help to govern the GIRs in steady state. We continued to refine these ideas over the summer, and intend to engage in a final round of consultations with the wider MIT community in the early fall. We plan to report to the faculty a series of concrete action items at the November 2008 Institute faculty meeting. For more detailed information, the ECS Interim Report can be found at: We welcome your comments, which you can send us through the feedback section on the Website.
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