Concepts familiar from grade-school algebra have broad ramifications in computer science.
Four faculty projects ranging from disseminating Russian science problems to creating a multimedia engineering text have received grants from the endowed Class of `51 Fund.
The fund, which was initiated at the class' 40th reunion in 1991, will assist projects aimed at enhancing undergraduate education at MIT. This year (the first in which money from the fund has been allocated), there were 17 proposals for projects that would have used 10 times the amount available if all had been funded, according to Professor Arthur C. Smith, dean for undergraduate education and student affairs.
The four projects were chosen by a panel of MIT's five deans with input from William Maini `51, the reunion co-chairman and former class president, Marvin Grossman, the other reunion chairman, current class president Harold Glenzel and class agent Fred Ezekiel. Faculty members coordinating the projects received grants totalling $65,000, and '51 Class members hope to see that amount increase in the future.
Class officers have raised $700,000 in pledges and actual donations for the fund's principal, according to Mr. Maini. "The importance of teaching was critical in our own MIT experience," he said. "We were very, very impressed with the enthusiasm of all the deans in receiving and reviewing the proposals. It was a wonderful experience."
PROBLEM SETS, SOVIET STYLE
The former Soviet Union has long been renowned for its scientific expertise and education. Each year, prospective students at Moscow State University and the Polytechnical Institute are given rigorous admission exams with problems ranging from easy to impossible. Even after the exams, however, Russian science and mathematics students wrestle with those problems, using them as an ongoing educational tool as well as an enjoyable challenge.
Bringing a sampling of these legendary problems to MIT undergraduates and eventually an even wider US audience is the goal of Professor Robert Rose of materials science and engineering, who first heard about them from Dr. Yuri Chernyak, a theoretical physicist in the former Soviet Union who is now a senior research fellow at Whitaker College. He works with students on some of the problems in Concourse, the freshman program of which Dr. Rose is director.
"These problems have become part of the [Russian] folklore. They spend the long Russian winter solving them," Dr. Rose explained. "They're a national resource every bit as precious as gold or oil or uranium."
With the Class of '51 money, Dr. Rose will be able to hire undergraduate tutors to gather and more formally organize problems in mathematics and physics for future Concourse groups. A 1994 IAP course in which students intensively tackled some of the problems was very successful, Dr. Rose said. Eventually, he hopes to obtain a National Science Foundation grant to permit travel to the former Soviet Union to gather more of the approximately 100,000 problems in existence and publish them in book form.
Physics 1 (course 8.01) will have an entirely new look next year, and the Class of '51 Fund will play a part in effecting the change.
In an effort to make the course more effective for students, the physics department is dispensing with most of the large lectures and having students work independently from an elaborate set of notes that includes material to be learned, examples, problems and explanations. Money from the fund will pay the salary of Dr. Susan Cartwright, a former postdoctoral fellow at MIT and now a lecturer at the University of Sheffield in England, who will help Professor Wit Busza of physics write the class notes over a six-month period.
The revamped course shifts more of responsibility for teaching from faculty onto the students, Dr. Busza explained. As the central learning tool, the notes will provide "a very well defined curriculum with no ambiguity" about what students are expected to know and why, Dr. Busza said.
With the course material clearly set out in the notes, the class professors in their twice-weekly meetings with small groups of 16 students can afford to concentrate on important issues and specific problems. Only one large lecture a week is needed, and it can be devoted to films, demonstrations and general discussion of new concepts. Faculty and TAs will also be available for two hours every Thursday for one-on-one discussions, and there will be a short test every Friday to encourage students to keep up with their studying.
ON-LINE ENGINEERING EDUCATION
In a bid to move beyond traditional paper-and-ink writing textbooks, Senior Lecturer Edward Barrett of the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies plans to create a prototype for an Electronic Multimedia Online Textbook in Engineering (EMOTE) for Writing Initiative Classes in engineering subjects. In collaboration with Dr. Janet Murray and the Laboratory for Advanced Technology and the Humanities, and with Assistant Professor Ian Waitz of aero/astro, Dr. Barrett will create a Macintosh-based system that will include digitized text, video, sound and still images. The prototype will be "richly hyperlinked" so information can be accessed in a variety of ways and so an instructor can insert his or her own additions and comments, he said. It will also contain an authoring system so students can move seamlessly from obtaining information through completion of a task such as writing a paper or preparing an oral presentation, Dr. Barrett added.
If all goes well, the project will be the starting point for a larger project that will create multimedia texts in different fields, Dr. Barrett said. He hopes to have the prototype ready for use by MIT students in the spring of 1995. "This is another chapter in the continuing story of very productive collaborations between the School of Humanties and the School of Engineering in exciting educational initiatives using computers at MIT," he said.
UNDERGRADUATE MATH RESEARCH
The fourth project aided by the Class of '51 Fund is a program to encourage undergraduate research in mathematics. Four faculty members from the department will teach a 12-week spring-semester freshman seminar, with each professor giving a three-week presentation on a topic that leads to research, said Professor Sy Friedman. From that group of 20 to 25 students, about a dozen will be selected to work with a faculty member and a graduate student over the summer, with financial support from the fund.
Dr. Friedman hopes that the project, which may operate in tandem with the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, will prompt students to continue their studies in the field, perhaps leading to a senior thesis. "We feel we'd like to do more to expose our bright math students to research topics, which we don't have time to do in the basic courses," he said. The first seminar will begin a year from now, although students could be working with faculty on research as early as this summer.
A version of this article appeared in the February 9, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 22).