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)

Five-Out-Of-Six Model is Not Viable for MechE,
but Five-Out-Of-Five Is

John H. Lienhard

The Mechanical Engineering faculty see many positive elements in the Task Force report, and we are actively considering how some of its recommendations may be used to improve our program. Here, I write to present our concerns about a single aspect of the Task Force report: the “take 5 out of 6 columns” proposal for the new Science, Math, and Engineering (SME) requirement.

A typical undergraduate program includes four subjects per term for four years, for a total of 32 subjects. Our experience has been that a substantial number of students get into academic trouble if they go beyond this level of effort. As a result, we regard 32 subjects as a reasonable maximum size for a degree program. The three SB degrees in our department each require 32 subjects, plus a ½ subject taught during IAP of the sophomore year.

After deducting four unrestricted electives and eight HASS GIRs from a 32-subject program, 20 subjects remain: eight within the new SME GIR, and 12 within departmental programs.

For any accredited engineering degree, ABET requires the equivalent of 12 engineering subjects and eight basic math and science subjects. Here is where difficulties arise.

The SMEs as proposed contain two columns in which some subjects may have engineering content (Computation/Engineering subjects and Project-based subjects). In the 5-out-of-6 variant of the SME requirement, students could take zero, one, or two GIR engineering subjects; and students may have anywhere from 6 to 8 basic math and science GIR subjects. Engineering departments are therefore challenged in using a 12-subject program to ensure that the ABET mandated engineering and math/science content is present. The solutions are unattractive and largely contrary to the Task Force goal of increased flexibility:

  • Departmental programs can grow to encompass all possible variations on the SME science or engineering content. Since only six math/science subjects could be assumed in general, departmental programs would have to require 12 engineering subjects and two more math/science subjects, for a minimum program size of 34 subjects (additional subjects might be required, if necessary math/science subjects were not among the 6 SMEs). This would not be helpful to MIT’s engineering students, some of whom would be pushed to a 4.5-year program.
    • To avoid growth, departments could write conditional program requirements: “If you have taken eight SME math/science subjects, you must take 12 engineering subjects in Course 2; if you have taken seven SME math/science subjects and one SME engineering subject, you must take 11 engineering subjects and one math/science subject; if you took . . ., etc.” One can imagine the confusion that this would bring to the students, their advisors, and the process of degree auditing (especially for programs with a large number of students). It would also encourage the creation of relatively arbitrary requirements to round out the necessary number of subjects.
      • Departments can specify as requirements a sufficient number of the SME GIR options to fix the number of engineering GIRs taken. For the ME programs, 18.03, 8.02, and a chemistry subject are needed; the only way to make the remaining two options predictably engineering or science would be to specify them both. In short, we would have to specify all five options. Slightly different calculations would apply to other engineering departments, but most are likely to reach a similar conclusion.

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        In contrast, a 5-out-of-5 model could allow a predictable mixture of science and engineering preparation at the GIR level, while retaining student flexibility within some columns and without driving the departmental programs toward growth. This is most easily explained by examples.

        • Suppose the five columns to be Physical Science, Chemical Science, Life Science, Computation, and Project-based subjects. ME degrees would require 8.02 and an engineering project (chosen from any of several in the Projects column). We may or may not need to specify the Computation subject (at present, it’s hard to tell what that column would contain). Thus, two or three of the columns would be flexible (Life Science, Chemistry, and Computation) and a fourth would have more limited flexibility (Projects). We would require 18.03 in our departmental program.
          • Suppose the five columns to be Math, Physical Science, Chemical Science, Life Science, and Computation. We would specify 18.03 and 8.02 as GIRs, and treat Computation as in the previous example.
            • Suppose the five columns to be Math, Physical Science, Chemical Science, Life Science, and Projects. We would specify 18.03 and 8.02, treating Projects as in the first example. We would cover basic computation in the departmental program, as we do now.

              These arrangements would each allow us to meet accreditation standards without completely eliminating flexibility. In each example, by the way, the Course 2 degree would have to give up one or two subjects to avoid growth; however, the new GIRs in computation and engineering projects have the potential to mitigate programmatic damage. Note that: each example separates engineering from the computation column; each retains 8.02, Chemical Science, and Life Science as GIRs, the last two reflecting the general consensus of ME’s faculty; and each requires 18.03 either as a GIR or as a departmental subject.

              A final variation that I will mention are the 4-out-of-4 models that have also been suggested. The deterministic nature of such models would allow us to construct departmental programs meeting the essential requirements outlined above.

              In its 5-out-of-6 proposal, the Task Force specifically recommends against letting departments specify all five options. Indeed, a 5-out-of-6 model in which departments may specify all five columns looks a lot like a 5-out-of-5 model. It differs from a true 5-out-of-5 model in its increased opportunity for freshman to choose SME subjects that would not be applicable to a departmental major chosen later on. It would also allow departments to exclude some fundamental areas, such as Chemical Science, in favor of areas that are less obviously fundamental, such as Project-based subjects.

              In summary, the ME faculty strongly endorses a reduction in the number of columns in the SME GIRs. From our perspective, each of the 5-out-of-5 examples described above can be made to work; and as it becomes clear what subjects might go into the four proposed new SME GIRs (Math, Computation, Engineering, and Projects), we will undoubtedly develop a preference for one or two of them.

              John H. Lienhard is the Undergraduate Officer for the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

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