MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XIX No. 4
February 2007
Grappling with Change
Overview of the Report of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons
Introduction to this Special Issue
Will the Task Force HASS Recommendations Increase Student Apathy?
A "Nerd Track" for MIT?
Reasons to Continue to Require 8.02
Diversity in Foundational Skills
and Knowledge
"Big Ideas" and the High School Asymmetry
More Science, Not Less
Recognizing the First Rate
Five-Out-Of-Six Model is Not Viable for MechE, but Five-Out-Of-Five Model Is
The Changing Nature of "Fundamental"
AP Credit for 8.01 is Appropriate
Arguments for Five-Out-Of-Five
The Case for a Shared Freshman
Knowledge Base
Educating Leaders for a Complex World
Toward a Liberal Scientific and
Technological Education
A Serious Equivocation:
The Issue of Foreign Language Study
Select Data Considered by the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons
Select Data Considered by the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons
The General Institute Requirements (GIRs)
Printable Version

The General Institute Requirements (GIRs)

A "Nerd Track" for MIT?

Jeffrey Freidberg


I, like every other faculty member that I have spoken to, would like to thank the Task Force for their heroic efforts over the last two years, culminating in the Task Force report. In perhaps the most crucial area, they have provided the faculty with a valuable insight. Specifically, the Task Force has concluded that our current GIR structure is too rigid. They, therefore, attempted to introduce some flexibility into the structure, which is a step in the right direction. Even so, in my opinion they do not go far enough.

The problem

The basis for this opinion follows from two observations made over many years of teaching at MIT.

  1. My first point has to do with the present GIR structure. Currently, the GIRs contain 17 subjects. To complete a major, in the School of Engineering, for instance, requires an additional 16 or so subjects. As pointed out by the Task Force, there is relatively little flexibility in the choice of GIRs. My problem is that I do not see why students who are interested in widely different majors such as physics or foreign languages need to have overlap in half their subjects.
  1. My second point concerns undergraduate preparation for graduate work in some of the highly technical programs at MIT. Over the years, I have noticed that undergraduate students joining my department from elite international universities are often substantially better prepared for success on day one than U.S. students, including those from MIT. They have more experience in mathematics and science than many of our own undergraduates. A comparison of several representative curricula shows that international students are required, with almost no flexibility, to take more technical subjects, fewer humanities subjects, and a larger total number of subjects. Are these international students less well rounded than MIT undergraduate students? Quite possibly, yes. However, while MIT strives to produce leaders, not all students want to be high-tech CEOs, national laboratory directors, or mega-managers in government. Some are old-fashioned “nerds” who strive to be leaders by virtue of pure technical excellence – their idol might be Richard Feynman.

    My problem is that neither the existing GIR structure nor the one proposed by the Task Force recognizes that there may be a substantial minority of MIT undergraduate students who fall in this category. From my point of view, the GIR structure does not serve these students well.

A possible solution

A more revolutionary approach to introduce flexibility into the GIRs to address the problems raised above is the following. Separate the GIRs into two groups. The first group represents the freshman year GIRs and these will be taken by all entering MIT students. The second group divides into two subgroups: (1) a “balanced program” which is very similar to that proposed by the Task Force, and (2) a “technically intensive program” that focuses on mathematics, science, and engineering. A similar “humanities intensive track” could be added but, because of my own lack of HASS educational experience, I will leave this to my HASS colleagues. Click here for a simple representation of the structure.

Observe that subgroup (2) represents the “nerd” track. The overall number of GIRs is 17 for both tracks. There is some, but not a lot, of flexibility within either track. The main flexibility lies in the fact that there are two distinctly different tracks. Within the technically intensive program, students graduate with 11 more math, science, and engineering subjects than in the present system. This is equivalent to a full additional year of technical subjects and should put these students in an excellent position to compete on day one in any graduate school of their choice.

The problems raised have thus been addressed. The details of implementation clearly would require a huge amount of discussion, but at this point are not the main issue. The primary question I pose to you is whether or not a two-stage GIR structure, as described above, is a worthwhile approach to pursue.

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