From the view of the departments and centers in the School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P), we ask the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons, what took so long? As faculty who represent the world of visual thinkers at MIT and who work and teach across the science-engineering-social science divide, we applaud the new concepts and approaches the Task Force proposes to bring undergraduate education into the twenty-first century. Speaking from experience born of practice and the demands of our disciplines, we place high value on a project-based curriculum, we require meaningful hands-on learning experiences, and for decades we have emphasized and provided extensive international and global learning experiences. We are pleased to see the Task Force advocate for institutional innovations which are fundamental to the culture of learning and teaching in SA+P, and will give undergraduates better access to the strengths, experiences, and contributions of this faculty and our disciplines.
Guided by Mens et Manus, hands-on learning is a cornerstone of an MIT education. Experience shows that MIT undergraduates are “doers” and problem-solvers who relish the pragmatic challenge of tackling large, complex problems – in the lab and the real world. The Task Force wisely builds on traditional curricular approaches that successfully engage our students while also cultivating new modes of learning. For too long MIT minimized experimental learning models and hands-on problem solving experiences as more suited for extra-curricular clubs or outside-of-classroom programs.
But by offering the possibility of GIR credit for the new problem-solving module and by applying a “big ideas” possibility to the SHASS requirement, suddenly, faculty will cross disciplines to develop courses with a multitude of diverse methods and perspectives in a systems approach to teaching, learning and problem solving.
We followed this method to develop the new undergraduate course, CityScope. Cityscope approaches the city as a multi-dimensional system with environmental, economic, energy-related, technological, socio-political, infrastructural and communication subsystems that can be networked together in either constructive or destructive ways. This year faculty from the School of Architecture and Planning will work with students in Cityscope and Terrascope (joint venture of the Schools of Engineering and Science) to apply science, engineering, and social science concepts to the hands-on study of New Orleans. This is only one example, but by imagining the potential to engage engineers, biologists, and computer scientists in the realms of politics, cities, history, or communications media, to name just a few, the Task Force has catapulted MIT’s curriculum to new heights of innovation.
Knowledge is being created all over the world, and the Task Force recognizes that MIT faculty and students learn from, add to, and participate in its creation. We need only to look across the Institute to see an astonishing array of programs offering opportunities for international learning, many of which are in SA+P or call on our faculty. For several years, the faculty of SA+P, often in collaboration with faculty from across the Institute, have offered international practica, studios, or exchanges in places like China, India, Mexico, Japan, Mozambique, Turkey, or Brazil. The Beijing Design Studio with Tsinghua University is one of MIT’s oldest collaborations in China. The Task Force call for more attention to the maintenance and growth of these programs is one that is long overdue. The faculty and the students will be better served with improved coordination and support of global learning experiences.
In the May/June 2006 Faculty Newsletter, Charles Stewart reminded us that at the end of the day, we all work to prepare our students for a lifetime of learning – in the sciences, the arts and the humanities. This is what the Task Force strives to do; it is what the School of Architecture and Planning has successfully done in the last several years with new curricular innovations intended to implement exactly the ideas developed by the Task Force. Engage students in on-the-ground problem solving or design, usually in teams, and confront some of the big challenges of our times: environmental degradation, poverty, over-urbanization, insufficient access to water and sanitation, unemployment, and sustainable construction; do this by building inter-disciplinary collaborations with other programs at the Institute such as history, political science, and engineering; teach, learn and research across cultures and across countries; rethink our conception of design to include technology, engineering, and the arts.
With thanks to the Task Force, the educational imperative is clear: prepare our students to be fluent in science and engineering to capably and competently understand and address complex problems of the human condition. With this as our goal, the proposed changes to the GIRs will lay the institutional foundation to better draw on the strengths of the entire MIT faculty to ready generations of leaders who can solve complicated, interdisciplinary problems, in a team, across cultures, and in multiple domains – whether labs, companies, cities, or nations. The faculty in the School of Architecture and Planning stand ready to do our part.
With thanks to Athelia Tilson for her assistance with this article.
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