MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XVIII No. 5
May / June 2006
Meritocracy and a Diverse Faculty
A Brief History and Workings
of the MIT Corporation
Committees of the Faculty:
An End-of-Year Recap
Lippard and Sharp Awarded
National Medal of Science
Energy Research Council and Forum:
A Major New Institute Initiative
Efficient Use of Energy:
Part of MIT's New Energy Initiative
Fueling Our Transportation Future
Lighting a Fire in MIT's
Undergradute Education
Some Thoughts on the Arts
Reflections on the "Visualizing Cultures" Incident
On the "Visualizing Cultures" Controversy and its Implications
Communication Requirement
Evaluation Process Begins
A Modest Proposal:
A Dental Insurance Plan for All Students
New Resource on Faculty Website:
"Current Practices"
"Soft Skills" to Help Avoid the "Hard Knocks"
Computer Space Planning for MIT
Tops IT-SPARCC's Priority List
Seniors Report Increased Satisfaction
with Faculty Interaction
Smart Buy Purchasing Initiative
Primary Form of Support
for Doctoral Students
Printable Version

Lighting a Fire in MIT's Undergraduate Education Preliminary Comments on the Work of the Task Force
on the Undergraduate Educational Commons

Charles Stewart III

In the winter of 2003, then-President Charles M. Vest charged a cross-section of the MIT faculty with undertaking a fundamental review of the common undergraduate educational experience at the Institute. In the half-century since the last such review, the applications of science and technology have become even more central in determining the wellbeing of human beings around the world. The demographics and goals of the students who come to MIT to benefit from the type of education we offer have changed significantly. Modes of teaching and learning have evolved; educational innovations might be better reflected in the undergraduate experience.

In short, while the overall framework of MIT’s undergraduate education has been successful and robust in the midst of a changing world, the job of the Task Force was to step back and ask how the curriculum might be modified to take account of changes in the world’s needs, student interests, and advances in teaching methods.

Many of MIT’s current practices should be preserved, but MIT’s curriculum must be adapted so that we can continue to equip our students with the capacity to have a positive impact on the world once they leave here.

An aphorism that has guided much of the Task Force’s work is attributed to William Butler Yeats: “Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire.” Applied to MIT, this saying reminds us that our task is not to expose students to all the knowledge they will need in a lifetime, but rather to equip our graduates with a robust set of skills, knowledge, and habits of mind that will set them upon a path of lifelong learning. We must stoke the fires of intellectual passion our students bring with them.

In order to equip our students with a lifelong capacity for learning, we have organized our curriculum around two major elements: the Science Requirement and the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences Requirement. The two combine to produce a distinctive curriculum in the context of American higher education. Each faces a different set of tensions as we strive to provide an undergraduate education that is both liberal in a classical sense and professional – and one that equips students to continue learning after they graduate.

Science, Mathematics, and Engineering

A solid grounding in the natural sciences, mathematics, and engineering is a hallmark of MIT’s undergraduate education. What should such grounding consist of? A half-century ago, the answer to this question was easy, and consisted of identifying a very small set of physical science and math classes. In the ensuing decades, the set of science classes that embody fundamental knowledge has grown considerably. Furthermore, engineering has evolved beyond being simply applied science. Finally, with some important exceptions, our foundational science subjects have tended toward passive teaching and learning approaches, at a time when our students are increasingly responsive to modes that are more hands-on and integrative.

The design challenge is this: how do we maintain the excellence, relevance, and focus that have been the strengths of our long-standing Science Requirement, while at the same time accommodating a wider range of foundational subjects, introducing engineering principles, and fostering more project-based learning within the requirement?

In the report we will release to the faculty in September, the Task Force will propose a new eight-subject Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Requirement that is directly responsive to this design challenge.

To address the need to accommodate a larger universe of foundational science and technical subjects, we should move from prescribing virtually the entire requirement by named subjects to requiring students to select among subjects that fall within six distribution categories – mathematics, physical sciences, chemical sciences, life sciences, computation and engineering, and freshman project-based experiences. We should continue to require that all students complete a year of calculus (18.01 and 18.02) and one semester of mechanics (8.01). Beyond that, students should be given the choice of subjects within the distribution categories, according to their own professional and personal goals.

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The last of these categories, freshman project-based experiences, is unlike the others in that it is defined more by educational approach than by subject matter. It is also conceivable that subjects in the substantive categories might emerge that are designed in a more integrative, project-based mode. At this point in MIT’s history, we believe it important to encourage the development of these sorts of classes at MIT – classes that move from the characterization of a complex problem to the design of a solution that draws on a mix of disciplines and approaches. Specifying such a separate category would do just that.

A topic of much discussion has been whether students should be required to take subjects from all six distribution categories, or be allowed to forego one (or more) of the categories.

We will propose that students be required to take subjects from five of the six, which means that a student might graduate without taking even one class in chemistry, life sciences, or engineering, or without doing an integrative project. We of course hope that students will take classes from all six of the categories, and will even take more than one class from each. Still, there are trade-offs in all curriculums, and we believe the gains in flexibility outweigh losses that may occur because some students will miss out on a particular subject.

The success of reforming the Science Requirement will rest on many things, including getting the administrative details right. An important detail is vigilant oversight to ensure that the number of subjects in each distribution category does not proliferate. The distribution categories should be populated with no more than three subjects apiece, with the exception of the freshman project-based subjects, which will need to be more numerous.

Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

MIT is dedicated to preparing students who will act to make a difference in the world. We back up this goal by providing our students with a rigorous education in culture and society. The current eight-subject Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (HASS) Requirement is a strong signal to the world that students who wish to use a rigorous technical education as a springboard to leadership in the public and private sectors, and in society at large, should study at MIT.

We have encountered widespread agreement that a rigorous grounding in humanities, arts, and social sciences is not only a necessary ingredient for a fulfilled life, but also a prerequisite for a successful professional career. For the past half-century, the role of this education at MIT has evolved. We believe the needs of our graduates demand that the role of the humanities, arts, and social sciences be even more prominent than they already are. We also believe the HASS Requirement needs to be more transparent and its goals more clearly articulated to our students and their advisors.

The design challenge is this: how do we maintain the current excellence in classroom teaching in the humanities, arts, and social sciences and the highly-valued student choice within the current HASS Requirement, while at the same time raising the stature of the HASS Requirement and sharpening its focus?

To help meet this challenge, we should be more explicit about identifying those classes that provide grounding in core disciplinary knowledge and academic skills, and focus the attention of freshmen and sophomores on those classes. We also believe that the centrality of the humanities, arts, and social sciences can be better demonstrated to students if their first experience with HASS subjects at MIT is one that responds to our students’ desires to tackle the most compelling problems and questions that face humankind.

We should think of the HASS Requirement as unfolding in two phases, foundational and advanced, which are distinguished by the degree to which they emphasize core knowledge, fundamental academic skills, and a breadth of subject material. Foundational subjects should introduce students to disciplinary approaches to important social and cultural matters, and should be especially attentive to developing basic intellectual skills such as writing, reading original sources, deciphering raw data, and using research resources such as libraries. These subjects should incorporate the CI-H portion of the Communication Requirement, which will end one of the most serious sources of confusion that now confronts the HASS Requirement. And, the foundational phase should have a streamlined distributional component. Advanced phase HASS subjects would constitute the Concentration, which we conceive of as being fundamentally unchanged from the current requirement.

An important element of the fundamental phase is a class of subjects we have termed “freshman experience” subjects. These subjects, which will be relatively few in number (no more than 16), are intended to provide an exciting intellectual experience by exploring “big ideas” in the realms of culture and society. These big ideas might be topics such as globalization, democracy, poverty, or revolutions. The big ideas would need to be broad enough to capture the attention of a relatively large number of freshmen (80 to 100, say), and rich enough so that a number of smaller sections that addressed the idea could provide the day-to-day intellectual focus of the students. Compelling ideas and a relatively large number of students would create, we believe, a sufficient critical mass of students and faculty around a particular topic that the larger intellectual climate of the Institute would be affected.

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Globalizing education, classrooms, and advising

Over two and a half years of work, the Task Force has deliberated on a wide variety of subjects, not only the Science and HASS Requirements. Because of space limitations, we have focused here on these two major elements of the curriculum. However, there are other matters which have commanded our attention, about which we will be making recommendations to the faculty and administration. Among these matters are globalizing undergraduate education, improving advising, and providing resources for curricular innovation.

Globalizing undergraduate education. Our graduates are entering a world in which commercial relations are less respectful of national borders and events on the other side of the globe have a great impact on their daily lives. A small number of MIT undergraduates currently have an experience abroad during their college years; these numbers are inadequate and must grow. The nature of engineering curricula makes this task especially challenging. However, we already have developed models of international study – such as MISTI, CME, and D-LAB – that work in the MIT environment and can be built upon to allow more students to study and work abroad during their four years at MIT. An appropriate goal is to make it possible for all undergraduates who wish to study abroad to do so.

Classrooms. The educational reforms we are proposing will require MIT to take a new look at its inventory of classrooms and other teaching space and then to undertake a major program of renewal and construction. Project-based and hands-on subjects require a different sort of classroom space than traditional lecture/recitation classes. In order to implement our proposal for special freshman HASS subjects, we will need a larger stock of classrooms that will accommodate 20 students for seminar discussions. The curriculum reforms we propose will not succeed unless improving the quality and distribution of classrooms is made a top priority.

Advising. A sore point among students, and cause for concern among many faculty members, is the uneven quality of undergraduate advising. In recent years, only a small number of faculty members have been involved in freshman advising; we believe that number should increase. Even more important, however, is the fact that the proposed curricular reforms will increase the number of choices freshmen will need to make, and make those choices more consequential. MIT’s current orientation and freshman advising systems have grown up around an assumption that the freshman year curriculum was relatively proscribed. That will no longer be the case, which means that both orientation and freshman advising will require a fresh look. In addition, the Task Force believes that the advising and mentoring of our students is an important faculty responsibility that should be an essential part of the teaching record.


These comments provide a brief overview of the current thinking of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons as we write up our final report. The report will be finished over the summer, to be delivered to President Hockfield in the fall. With the delivery of the report to the president, we trust our recommendations will be commended to the faculty, for debate, refinement, and (we hope) approval and implementation. As we have discovered, everyone at MIT feels passionately about our undergraduate curriculum. We eagerly anticipate the channeling of those passions in the fall, as we deliberate how to improve that curriculum together.

Ed Note: To view the Task Force Website, which contains the set of slides presented at the mid-May town meeting as well as other information, go to:

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