MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XVII No. 1
September/October 2004
Welcome Aboard President-elect Hockfield!
The Management of the MIT Endowment
Affirming Freedom of Expression at MIT
Teaching this fall? You should know . . .
Preliminary Position of the Faculty Policy Committee on Faculty Governance
Developing Musical Structures:
A Reflective Practicuum
Work of the Committee on the Undergraduate Program, 2003 – 2004
Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons
Some Reflections on Aspects of the Undergraduate Education Policy
Benefit Changes for Faculty
Upon Retirement
Short Takes
Establishing Leadership in the Emerging Field of Engineering Systems
Concerto for Erhu and Subway
Spaces, Software, and Services –
Supporting Educational Innovation and Sustainability with Technology
Web Accessibility:
What Faculty Should Know
What Was it Like Working with OCW?
Printable Version

Task Force on the Undergraduate
Educational Commons

Robert J. Silbey

It is necessary, from time to time, for a great university like MIT to take stock of its undergraduate educational programs from a fundamental perspective. As a matter of course, these programs evolve slowly over time as faculty introduce new ideas and new teaching techniques. Since the last thorough examination of the undergraduate curriculum, the MIT undergraduate student body has changed dramatically, becoming more diverse across a wide range of dimensions.

For these reasons, this is an appropriate time for us to reevaluate undergraduate education at MIT , and to ask if our students – when they graduate – are appropriately educated and have acquired the skills and attitudes necessary to make positive contributions to their field and to society.

The report of the 1998 Task Force on Student Life & Learning discussed community life at MIT and made recommendations for improving our environment – some of which have been acted upon. Building on that foundation, the newly formed Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons will affirm and update the goals of an MIT undergraduate education and propose improvements to the core educational experience that are tailored to the students we teach and the world in which they live.

During the spring term, the Task Force, met bi-weekly to educate itself about the current state of the core educational program. The General Institute Requirements (GIRs) are designed to broaden our students' academic horizons, improve their problem solving and analytical skills, and provide a solid foundation upon which future learning can be built. The Task Force dedicated a number of meetings to fully understanding what the GIRs encompass, the history that has led to their current form, how successful they are perceived to be, trends in enrollments and other data, and the issues and challenges faced by those who deliver the GIRs. As each requirement was reviewed, familiar themes emerged: pressure and pace; a desire to add to the curricular requirements coupled with a reluctance to take anything out; and issues with the retention and application of material learned in the first year. There was also discussion of a perceived lack of excitement and engagement among students in the first year and a need to articulate the purpose and goals of the core curriculum in a more effective manner.

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Individual members of the Task Force gathered input from various stakeholders in the educational commons, including the faculty who teach the core subjects, the MacVicar Fellows, the faculty Undergraduate Officers in each department, the Engineering Council on Undergraduate Education, and the DUE Visiting Committee. These groups raised concerns over the allocation of time within the curriculum and the trade-offs necessary to add new components to the MIT educational experience. In addition, many members of these groups expressed a specific need to revisit the purpose, goals, and implementation of all the undergraduate requirements.

The student members of the Task Force reached out to the larger community through an open forum and two smaller student roundtable discussions. They also gathered student opinions through the UA Website and in conversations with the Student Senate. Much of the student sentiment focused on the need to simplify the HASS requirement and broaden the School's subject offerings. In addition, a group of students strongly advocated the development of a "diversity requirement." There was unanimous praise for undergraduate research opportunities, but students expressed a desire for interaction with faculty members in a wider variety of settings.

Dean of Admissions Marilee Jones attended an early Task Force meeting to report on the profile of the current generation of students and how this profile has changed in the past ten years. According to Marilee, our students have broader interests than MIT students of the past.

They have been encouraged throughout their lives to engage in a wide range of activities and feel significant pressure to succeed in all of them. These students are accustomed to having little unstructured time and have had minimal experience with failure. All of these factors have significant implications for how we teach our students and consequently what and how well they learn.

During an intensive work week held shortly after Commencement, the Task Force heard from instructors of a few of the innovative, hands-on subjects that are taught throughout the Institute, such as 12.000 (Solving Complex Problems); 2.000 (How and Why Machines Work); and 6.002X (an experimental version of Circuits and Electronics). The group considered whether these classes could serve as models for additions to the educational commons that would increase enthusiasm and conceptual learning among students. Dr. Lori Breslow of MIT's Teaching and Learning Lab joined the group for a discussion of recent pedagogical research underway at MIT and elsewhere. The group reviewed the success of active learning approaches and debated the methods and feasibility of incorporating this type of teaching into a wider range of subjects.

The Task Force spent a full morning talking with Associate Dean of Engineering Dick Yue, chair of the School of Engineering Council on Undergraduate Education (ECUE). In addition to hearing about the results of a number of surveys of SoE students and faculty (including a study of engineering student workload patterns), Professor Yue shared ECUE's thoughts on potential links between engineering education and the core educational program.

The Task Force also reviewed preliminary findings from this year's Senior Survey and requested additional analysis from the Institutional Research staff of the Provost's Office. As in the past, the data indicated that students at MIT place greater importance on developing analytical, quantitative, and problem solving abilities than on understanding and appreciating the humanities, arts, and social sciences. The Task Force hopes to be able to track the priorities of students over time and compare MIT results to that of other institutions, shedding light on whether it is reasonable for the MIT educational commons to encourage greater balance among these areas.

The remainder of the work week was dedicated to reviewing the findings of prior committees regarding the goals of an MIT education and the principles that guide the teaching of our students. At the end of the week, the group broadly defined four focus areas on which to concentrate. Members divided into small groups and will report their progress to the full Task Force this month.

The Task Force was charged to engage actively with the entire mit community throughout its deliberations, and as the group moves in the upcoming months from learning mode to generating a draft set of educational goals and ideas, we intend to live up to this commitment. Members of the Task Force will begin an active outreach to departments, faculty, students, staff, and alumni to share our work-in-progress as well as to solicit feedback. In addition, our student members will establish a student advisory group to ensure that we receive regular input from the wider student community. While the Task Force has made progress, there is still much work to be done. Now that the group has developed a solid understanding of the current state of MIT's educational program and the forces that are impacting the mit experience, we can focus on what aspects of the curriculum need to be addressed and how we can best achieve educational reform. As we formulate a vision of the MIT of the future, we will look to you to provide your perspective. Contact your colleagues from the membership list below to share your ideas for enhancements to the undergraduate educational commons. For more information, see theTask Force Website:

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