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)

More Science, Not Less!

James L. Kirtley Jr.

The members of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons obviously put a lot of time, effort, and thought into their report. The report clearly articulates serious issues with our present day core curriculum and makes outstanding proposals for reform. However, one gets the impression that they worked perhaps too hard and made too many compromises.

Core Requirements

Core requirements exist for two reasons: first, they are the fundamental part of a student’s general education and preparation for being a good citizen. They should impart skills and knowledge that all graduates of the Institute should have. Second, core requirements serve as preparation for future study. As the title of the Task Force report implies, core requirements should be a common experience and background for all students.

The science requirement as it is currently constituted does not specify either enough depth or breadth.

The well specified part of the curriculum makes a good start, with two subjects each in physics and mathematics and one each in chemistry and biology. But that is it: the rest of the science requirement (two subjects) has been largely subsumed into department programs.

In its report, the Task Force recognizes this: saying that the science requirement “no longer provides MIT students with the type of preparation in the fundamentals that they need.” The Task Force attributes this to advances in science and technology over the past 50 years. One presumes that the science core has failed to keep up. This indicates the need for either more science in the core or a better directed science requirement. What the Task Force proposes does not cure either problem. It would actually make the situation worse. The specified part of the science core would shrink to three subjects (from six) and the rest of the science core would come from a menu (one from column A…). Much of what students take from that menu would probably be specified by departmental programs.

What is proposed is far from an “Educational Commons.” It would not constitute a shared experience and it would provide little on which to build subsequent education. It would ensure some rigor in our students’ background, but it would make for neither preparation nor general education.

What to do?

Broadening the range of subjects that satisfy some aspect of the science requirement would not provide a broad education for any student. We need to broaden the subjects specified in the science core. Figuring out what is really required by our students, both to enable them to be good citizens of our future society and to give them the underpinnings of a professional education, will require substantial effort. But it must be done. We will probably conclude that more than two terms of physics are necessary. We might also conclude that some of the science subjects need to be larger than 12 units.

Many of the observations and recommendations of the Task Force are valid. We should expose the students to real-world engineering challenges early in their time at MIT. (This is part of “lighting the fire.”) The project-based subjects now being developed could serve this purpose, perhaps as enhancements to freshman seminars. Computation and programming skills should also be part of the undergraduate curriculum. Opportunities for introducing computation skills will arise in mathematics and science subjects. Perhaps the otherwise poorly used time in the students’ first IAP could be used for a first subject in programming.

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HASS requirement and unit creep

The expository writing requirement is a long awaited improvement. A common first year experience is a good idea, but as one of the students who, in 1963, suffered through 21.01, I have to say that designing such a subject will be a real challenge.

To fulfill the objective of educating our students to be good citizens, it is most important that the HASS curriculum incorporate elements of history and social science (including economics). While the “Arts” are fun and interesting, it is less clear that they are necessary in a general education.

Finally, in the 40 years since the Zacharias Committee report, the HASS requirement has grown from 72 to 96 units plus parts of two department subjects (the CI-Ms). We should determine if this is really what we want. Sizing the first year HASS subjects at nine units would leave enough time in the first term to accommodate a nine unit project based lab subject within the 54 unit freshman credit limit. 

The Task Force is on to something

A lot of good work and effort went into the Task Force report. These remarks are not intended to be a negative comment on the work of the Task Force, but rather a recommendation for strengthening the Educational Commons that arise from its conclusions.

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