MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XIX No. 4
February 2007
The Contribution of the Faculty
to the Commons
The State of Undergraduate Advising
The Journey, Not the Arrival
A Global Education for MIT Students
The Broader Education
Flexible Majors in Engineering
On the Pursuit of Beauty at MIT
Welcome to the Machine:
First-Year Advising, Choice, and Credit Limits
A Proposal for an Alternative Framework
The Knowledge Debate
A Twenty-First Century Undergraduate Education for MIT Students
Igniting Passion in Our Students
Getting There From Here
The Challenge of Multidisciplinary Education for Undergraduates
Printable Version

The Commons, the Major, and the First Year

The Knowledge Debate

Warren Seering

When we consider the Core, our debate focuses on what (or whose) knowledge should be taught. Absent a clear basis for selecting, we hear our assertions grow louder. It’s fundamental; it’s elegant; it’s deep; it’s the future; it’s prerequisite.

I propose an alternative. Let’s focus on what skills should be taught. The bases for selecting can be, “Will our students be well served by having this skill?” and “Is MIT equipped to help them acquire it?” We can measure the answers and prioritize from there.
Through a recent survey of Mechanical Engineering alumni [the survey can be viewed at], we collected information on how often 300 of our graduates, ages 30 to 34, used various categories of knowledge and skill. When asked how frequently they employ their knowledge of underlying sciences – physics, chemistry, or biology – the most prevalent response was, “Hardly ever – a few times a year.” The next most prevalent response was, “Never.” More than 60% of the alumni reported using calculus, differential equations, statistics, or linear algebra at most occasionally, where occasionally was defined to be about once a month. Once again, the most prevalent response was, “Hardly ever.” The results were quite different when we asked about skills. When they were asked how frequently they employ the skills of working independently, setting goals, and extracting and evaluating relevant knowledge, more than 95% reported using these skills “frequently – on most days,” or “pervasively – for most everything I do.” For the skills of critical thinking, creative thinking, perseverance, and willingness to take risks, the percentage reporting frequent or pervasive use was even higher. Comparable results were obtained regarding teamwork and communication skills. The results were largely insensitive to choice of profession. The data suggests that the skills students acquire are substantially more important to them than the knowledge from our Core. We should keep this in mind when the sound pressure rises.

Given these preliminary measures of the importance of certain skills for our graduates, we can next address the second question, “Is MIT able to help our students acquire these skills?” The answer, of course, is “Yes, if we choose to.” There can be many opportunities to teach these skills, though our current focus on knowledge constrains our options. An ideal setting for our students to begin learning these valuable skills would be a properly constructed freshman design projects course. Opportunities for learning the skills of creative problem solving, goal setting, gathering of relevant knowledge, critical thinking, effective communication, and teamwork abound in such settings. I disagree with the Task Force, however, when they suggest that such project courses are opportunities for “learning by doing.” Granted, we learn when we do. But what we learn may be wrong.

Assigning a group of students to a project doesn’t mean that the scheduling or goal-setting skills that they acquire will be good ones. For project courses to serve the objective of teaching skills, the faculty offering them must know enough to teach those skills and the course project must be a platform for learning them.

Fortunately, there are faculty at MIT, and many faculty elsewhere, for whom the study of these skills is a focus of research. Unfortunately, few of us know the literature. Before we set out to address the learning of skills through a project-based first-year experience, we will have to identify and articulate the skills to be taught and then put in place the mechanisms for faculty to prepare themselves to teach those skills. MIT is no place for novices.

Inherent in the debate over what knowledge should be taught is the issue of who decides. Particularly, who will say how many of the “six choose five” a department can specify? Battle lines are being drawn. Engineering departments are seen as inflexible. Why is this issue so contentious? A look at the norms provides some insight [Digest of Education Statistics – 1999. National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement. NCES 2000-031]. A U.S. student receiving a Bachelors degree in engineering will spend just shy of 75% of class units in classes on mathematics, natural sciences, engineering, and computer science. Students receiving degrees in the natural sciences will spend 55% of class units in these classes.

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Why the spread? Schools of engineering are charged by the engineering community with the task of preparing their undergraduates to enter the engineering workforce. A large fraction of MIT’s engineering undergraduates, hundreds per year, will not pursue advanced degrees. They’re ready to work and they want to get to it. Students in the sciences, upon completion of their degree requirements, are not expected to become practicing scientists. A BS in engineering is a professional degree; a BS in science is not.

So where are we at MIT? Currently, for my department, things look like this:

math (24) + science (48) + {REST (24) + lab (12) + ME Department (138)} + HASS (96) + free electives (48) = Total (390)

(24 + 48 + 24 + 12 + 138) / 390 = 0.63 or 63%

Our current arrangement sets requirements for engineering that are essentially midway between the national norms for engineering and those for science. So it’s not surprising that engineering faculty might feel they currently are unable to fulfill their educational responsibilities in a way that meets the expectations of their professional community, while faculty in other Schools see them as greedy.

Engineering curricula and science curricula are and should be different. Engineering and science students, in the aggregate, have different career goals. Both sets are noble and are central to the Institute’s mission. And they are not the same. Several recent pronouncements by prominent MIT faculty, implying that engineering and science are two sides of the same slice, are, in my opinion, misguided. In the survey mentioned above, none of the 300 engineering alumni listed themselves as scientists. In a community that celebrates its respect for diversity, we should invest the time needed to understand and honor the differences among the missions, the methods, and the external forces that define the cultures within our Schools. These differences should be respected when we make the rules.

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