Learning in a Research University

President Vest's letter to the parents of MIT undergraduates, published in MIT Parents News, Spring 1994.

© Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1994. To reprint or excerpt for publication, please contact the MIT News Office at newsoffice@mit.edu, or (617) 253-2700.
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The Object of Research, the Object of Education

By selecting MIT, your sons and daughters have chosen to continue their education at a research university, a community that is home to undergraduate and graduate education, as well as to the search for new discoveries about the world we live in. Over the past forty years, these institutions have served America exceedingly well, educating leaders in academia, business, and government, advancing our skills in endeavors as diverse as music and the arts, technology, medicine, and industrial development, and deepening our understanding of our physical, social, and natural worlds.

In today's debate on undergraduate education, however, the value of the undergraduate instruction that such an institution offers is being called into question. What the question assumes is that research and teaching are somehow incompatible. The professors at a research university are devoted to their research, the argument runs. It is for their research that they are judged and rewarded--their teaching is, at best, a secondary obligation.

There are many legitimate concerns about the quality of education in the United States that must be addressed, but posing the issue as a conflict between teaching and research misses the point. As parents of MIT undergraduates, you should know why we believe the education and experience your students are getting here are vital both for them and for our future. The real issue is how to maximize the quality of undergraduate education by drawing on the resources and experiences that are uniquely available in research universities. At the heart of the discussion, I think, is the understanding of what research and education are.

For nearly twenty years I was active in both classroom teaching and research, teaching both undergraduate and graduate subjects every term. As a teacher I have seen the value to students of learning from--and working with--men and women who are discovering the future through their research, not just teaching the history of their fields.

The object of research, to paraphrase Nobel Prize winning physicist Leon Cooper, is to discover how the world works. We use research both to satisfy our innate curiosity--what is the structure of the solar system, what are the basic constituents of matter and how do they interact--and to help us solve problems--how can we prevent and cure disease, create more livable cities, or secure the advances of computers and communications technology for the social good. Sometimes, what we learn by satisfying our curiosity turns out to produce the knowledge we can use to solve our problems.

The object of education, broadly speaking, is to prepare people to live full and responsible lives. The students who come to MIT have their own set of expectations. Among them are people with a passion to engineer a better world and to shape the future. Among them are profoundly creative people who will tread new and different pathways in science and engineering, as well as in the arts, humanities, management, and social sciences. Among them are those who will design new buildings and create more workable urban living environments. Our society will ask much more of these students--and they will ask more of themselves--than just to know what others have accomplished. If they are going to help us expand our knowledge and solve our problems, they are going to have to know how to research, to analyze, to synthesize, and to communicate. They must learn how to gather data, to develop hypotheses, to test and refine them, or throw them out when necessary and start again. They also will need to learn how to share their work with other professionals and with their fellow citizens.

Most of what we teach our students in the core science subjects at MIT--in mathematics, physics, chemistry and now biology--provides a basic understanding of how systems work and how processes can be expressed mathematically. It also gives them an understanding of how fundamental concepts are developed and used. Establishing this foundation is critical, and students must have good teachers to guide and inspire them. Some of the core subjects take the students amazingly close to the frontiers of human knowledge, imbuing them with the spirit of intellectual adventure. This adventure is present in the humanities, arts, and social sciences as well: students work with faculty who are not only musicologists but major composers, who are not only observers of, but players in, the government scene, who not only critique best-selling books, but write them as well.

At MIT, the faculty--including the most renowned--are as serious about their teaching as they are about their research, and they continually renew the undergraduate curriculum as the intellectual map changes and the world in which we live evolves and transforms. Because they are so deeply engaged in intellectual and technological progress, they have a sense of the preparation our students will need. Our new undergraduate biology requirement, which took effect with this year's freshman class, is an excellent example. The revolution in molecular and cell biology of the last few decades, led in part by MIT scientists, will touch all of us through its effects on medicine, the environment, and biotechnology. Genetic counseling and genetic engineering will be a part of all of our lives. To be scientifically literate, therefore, today's students must understand the intellectual basis of these developments and their social implications. MIT is the first university in the country to acknowledge this scientific revolution by adding molecular biology as a required subject for all of our undergraduate students. Our research orientation enables us to lead the way in education.

Putting Students on the Front Lines of Research

At MIT, students have the opportunity both to learn from research and to be a part of it. It is not rare here for a teacher to bring a newly formed theory or newly discovered phenomenon into the classroom to give students the opportunity to work with it, challenge it, refine it, or extend it.

A unique and unusually effective part of the MIT undergraduate experience is the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), which is specifically designed to put students on the front lines of research. At least three-quarters of our undergraduates take part in UROP while they are here, in projects that range from one-on-one faculty-student teams to interdisciplinary collaborations with faculty, graduate students and other undergraduates that reflect the increased interdisciplinary nature of much of today's frontier research. These experiences, ranging from developing computer models of the evolution of the universe to designing robotic fish, deepen understanding, give reality to theory, develop relevance and excitement, and personalize education.

I believe that where there are problems with undergraduate education in this country, it is more often because of a separation of teaching and research, rather than an overemphasis on research. The discipline, joy and continual renewal of original research, scholarship or other creative intellectual activity keeps teachers lively and successful. One may start out as an effective and even brilliant teacher, but without the kind of continual renewal that research and scholarship provide, one may not grow in wisdom and breadth, and over time may lose rather than gain in effectiveness as a teacher.

This is an issue that I often discuss with members of Congress and federal policy makers, because government support of education and research is critical to our future. Indeed, I believe a very serious threat to our faculty's commitment to teaching is the increasing difficulty in finding funding for research and graduate student support, as research dollars shrink and merit and peer review give way to pork barrel politics. The surest way to dampen our faculty's teaching, and our students' learning, would be to cut research budgets, thereby increasing the time that faculty must devote to proposal writing and administration rather than to teaching and research. This spring nine of our UROP students are going to Washington to talk to Congressional leaders to urge them to maintain the federal government's commitment to research and to the policies that have helped us keep the UROP program strong.

To enable our students to reach their full potential to participate in our society and, just as importantly, to enjoy fully the beauty and the adventure of creating and understanding, we have to teach them how to advance our knowledge. That is why I believe that the very best learning environment is one in which undergraduate and graduate education are blended with the conduct of research and scholarship. The issue should not be teaching versus research, it should be the proper interweaving of the two.

I am fond of quoting Fred Terman, an MIT alumnus who served with great distinction as Stanford's engineering dean and later as provost. When asked once whether he wanted his university to be a teaching institution or a research institution, he answered that he wanted it to be a learning institution. And that is the ideal--students and faculty learning together in both the classroom and laboratory.

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