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)

Diversity in Foundational Skills and Knowledge

Eric Grimson

What should every MIT undergraduate know by the time they leave the Institute?

While this is not the only way to look at the challenge of modifying the General Institute Requirements, it provides one focal point for considering that challenge. A natural interpretation of the question focuses on knowledge: What corpora of information do they command? What specific techniques have they acquired? To what fields of endeavor have they been exposed? However, an equally important perspective is to focus on the transferable skills that students acquire: What modes of thought have they mastered? What general problem solving skills have they acquired that apply to new fields of interest? Have they learned fundamental tools of abstraction that enable them to isolate central elements of very complex systems, from any domain of intellectual inquiry? Have they learned synthetic ways of thinking?

This perspective of transferable skills is important in considering how to evaluate potential changes in the GIRs.

The explosive growth of scientific and technical knowledge and techniques in the past few decades already overwhelms our ability to instruct every student in areas of knowledge that significant subsets of our faculty feel every student should master. Should every student, independent of primary interest, be knowledgeable about computation? Should every student be knowledgeable about statistics, and reasoning under uncertainty? Should every student be knowledgeable about large-scale complex systems? Should every student be knowledgeable about macroeconomics? Should every student be knowledgeable about ethics and professional behavior? Many of the faculty would probably answer yes to each of these questions. Clearly if one includes these and other essential areas with the current GIRs, we run the danger of completely filling up a student’s academic agenda, leaving no room for the specialization in a major.

If we cannot cover every field of inquiry that we think is important, an alternative is to provide a system that supports a diversity of types of students – a compromise in which a student would follow one of a small number of subsets of possible GIRs. In this view, every student would have an intellectual base (spanned by their particular selection of foundational courses) that is broad enough to cover several intellectual modes of thought. At the same time, the set of choices of foundational subjects should be small enough that any pair of students would have sufficient overlap in their bases to foster easy communication of ideas, thus engendering cross-fertilization and interaction.

Foundational courses should provide transferable skills so that any student can apply their personal toolkit of reasoning and problem solving techniques to new fields of interest.

And ideally students will be infected with a lifelong curiosity that will encourage them to acquire new domains by applying these transferable skills. This is particularly important when one considers the data on where our alumni pursue careers. Even as few as 10 years after graduation, a striking number of our alumni/alumnae are working in fields unrelated to their major discipline as a student – yet clearly, as they are usually the first to acknowledge, they benefit from the analytical, critical, and problem solving skills that they acquired along the way.

Of course, to support a system that encourages diversity of intellectual bases, there is a responsibility on the part of the faculty to provide appropriate mentoring and advice. While many students will come to MIT knowing what they want to study, none will have the breadth and depth of experience of our faculty. It is up to us to engage deeply with students – to provide advice and suggestions on selections of foundational courses, on the kinds of careers such choices enable, and on the exciting opportunities at the interfaces between and boundaries of existing disciplines.

What should every MIT undergraduate know by the time they leave the Institute? While it is no longer possible to empower students with knowledge in every relevant field of inquiry, it is possible to provide them with the curiosity and learning skills to acquire new fields as needed. By providing students with an opportunity to tune a foundational basis to meet a diverse set of needs, we enable them to step into leadership roles when they leave the Institute.

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