The General Institute Requirements (GIRs)
The SME GIRs: Arguments for Five-Out-Of-Five
A key aspect of the recommendations of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons concerning the Science, Mathematics, and Engineering (SME) GIR is the requirement that students complete, in addition to 18.01, 18.02, and 8.01 (or their variations), at least one subject in at least five of the following six areas: Chemical Sciences, Computation and Engineering, Life Sciences, Mathematics, Physical Sciences, and Project-based First Year Experiences.
Careful readers of the Task Force report will have noted that, while this recommendation was favored by a majority of the Task Force members, a significant minority favored a “five out of five,” or 5/5, requirement as opposed to the “five out of six,” or 5/6, version.
We actually spent a lot of time in the Task Force discussing the pros and cons of the two approaches and, since I was one of those favoring the 5/5 version, I have been asked by a few people to write a piece expanding on the reasons a number of the members of the Task Force favored this approach. I will not claim here to represent all those who favored the 5/5 version, but I believe I can summarize the key arguments.
A goal that pervaded many of the Task Force recommendations was that of allowing our students more flexibility, or choice, in designing and completing their undergraduate curriculum, including the General Institute Requirements. This goal was considered to be important primarily because it is expected to lead to more ownership and engagement by the students in their educational process. However, the Task Force members also realized that with increased flexibility will come increased probability that students may make choices early in their studies which reduce flexibility later on. A significant number of our students do end up majoring in areas that they would not have chosen as incoming students, and others change majors while at MIT. One can easily see how choices made in a 5/6 SME GIR could later limit the ability of a student to major in some departments and graduate in four years. We have long prided ourselves on a system in which students receive a basic education which allows them to major in essentially any department, and the 5/6 version would erode this aspect of our system. The 5/5 version will not, of course, eliminate the possibility that students make choices in the first year that limit their major options, but it certainly would reduce this possibility.
In fact, the crucial point here is that we are trying to find the optimal compromise between increased flexibility for students and a set of SME GIRs which provides an appropriate base for all majors. Many of us expect that flexibility within an area will be more important for students than flexibility across areas, and therefore the 5/5 approach is closer to the optimal compromise.
A related issue is how departmental major programs connect to the SME GIRs, even for students who do not change major plans after they arrive at MIT. I believe others will address this issue directly in this Faculty Newsletter. I will just say here that the 5/5 version will likely make this connection more straightforward for many departments and students.
An argument which I feel strongly about is the simplicity and clarity of the 5/5 approach.
Whatever GIRs we as a faculty ultimately adopt, we will be sending messages both inside and outside MIT. I believe that a clear message about what we believe is important for all of our undergraduates to know has considerable merit. For example, I believe we were correct in the early 1990s to require some knowledge of life sciences of all of our students, and I would not want that and other important messages to be muddied.
There are of course many ways one could contract the 5/6 formulation to a 5/5 formulation. Perhaps the most straightforward and practical way would be to combine the Computation and Engineering and Project-based First Year Experiences areas. Unlike the traditional areas of Chemical Sciences, Life Sciences, Mathematics, and Physical Sciences, the area of Computation and Engineering and that of Project-based First Year Experiences would be new to the GIRs. It will take some time and experimentation to get to the point where appropriate offerings are available to large numbers of students. It may be sensible to combine those two areas into one during that time of development so we would not be misleading students about availability. One might define a five-year period of development, after which the faculty would explicitly evaluate subjects that had been developed, how the 5/5 approach was working, and whether there were good reasons to go to a 5/6 approach. Another suggestion which was discussed by the Task Force was the possibility of eliminating the Mathematics area, thus leaving a 5/5 formulation. This suggestion came from the realization that requiring a third math subject would actually be an increase over the current requirements in mathematics, that most of our students now take more than two mathematics subjects, and that this would certainly continue in the future under any of the schemes we eventually adopt. In any event, if the faculty ultimately decides that the 5/5 version is preferred, a complete discussion of how best to define it must take place.
Finally, while many of the discussions in the Task Force and afterward have been heated, I periodically remind myself that all of the changes to the traditional Science and Mathematics core we are considering will likely be viewed from a distance as essentially tuning an already strong and challenging educational system. There seems little possibility that changes will be interpreted, by our prospective students or by educators in general, as a weakening of MIT’s commitment to a first-class and demanding undergraduate education in science and engineering. Our current system works well. Many of us believe it can work even better, and we want to make it so.