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

Getting There From Here

J. Kim Vandiver

The reception of the Task Force’s recommendations has been rocky. I am hopeful that we will put in place a set of general education principles and requirements that will excite, empower and enable MIT students in this new century. As a member of the Task Force, I believe that our best work was done in the first 18 months, as we developed a consensus around a few important goals and principles. Among these were:

1. An MIT science and technology centric education should be based on a common core of knowledge, attitudes, and skills.

2. High-quality undergraduate teaching is one of our great strengths, and we should strive to continually improve.

3. For some students, the freshman year lacks opportunities to engage in interesting subjects in the fields that inspired them to attend MIT. The freshman-year curriculum needs to have exciting and engaging opportunities for all.

4. Global challenges require that our students be culturally aware and prepared to function effectively on an international stage.

I believe that the way to move forward is to resist initial debates over particular subjects and return to the discussion of the principles that we believe should serve as a foundation for an MIT undergraduate education.

When we do discuss subject content, I propose that we focus our attention specifically on what we want our students to know and be able to do. Once we agree on specific goals, the strengths and weaknesses of alternate proposals can be evaluated against them.

I would like to begin that conversation by taking a deeper look at the four points above, examining them in light of the two Task Force recommendations that seem to be the most controversial: the science, mathematics, and engineering proposals (SME) and the HASS subject proposals.

A common foundation

The members of the TF agreed in principle that there should be a common knowledge base for all students, but disagreed on what constitutes that core. Wiggins and McTighe in their book Understanding by Design describe three categories of knowledge which are useful to consider when engaging in a discussion of what undergraduates should know:

  • Enduring understanding
  • Important to know and do
  • Worth being familiar with.

    The problem, of course, is agreeing on what belongs in each of those categories. I would argue that we need a set of criteria by which we can make these important decisions. I offer two examples: 1. What should a twenty-first-century MIT graduate know about the fundamental principles of biology in order to make informed decisions about public policy or even threats to our own health? 2. What are the fundamental skills that grow into an ability to analyze and solve hard problems? How can we provide students with opportunities to learn those skills explicitly? And once we identify those opportunities, how do we sustain them? Let’s use the GIRs to strive for a small set of fundamentals on which departments can build major programs.

There is, however, one constraint I would put upon the SME core. Keep it as small as possible. The present core is six subjects, not counting the lab or REST requirements, because they are determined by the majors. A six-subject maximum is needed to protect students who come to MIT with little or no AP or advanced standing credit. Such students usually come from disadvantaged high schools without AP opportunities. Statistics show that these students have less time for opportunities such as UROP and are less likely to find supportive mentors. This situation would be exacerbated by the current proposal of eight SME subjects.

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The HASS GIR is of great promise and importance. To this point science and engineering faculty have had little opportunity to participate in the discussion of the principles and goals for the HASS GIRs. A faculty-wide discussion would help us reach common ground. Again, as an example of how identifying underlying learning goals would help us focus, I suggest that the goals for the HASS GIR should be: (1) giving our students exposure to “ways of knowing” that are different from those common to science and engineering; (2) improving our students’ communication skills, not only in writing, but also in oral communication and in the skills they will need in a world that increasingly relies on visual and electronic modes of communication; and (3) encouraging foreign language study and engagement in international experiences. Imagine the richness of what we can accomplish for our students through the interaction of faculty from HASS, SoE and SoS.

High-quality teaching

MIT has many great teachers, but we are at risk of falling behind our peer schools if we do not embrace recent advancements in teaching and learning. There has been an explosion in research on STEM learning in higher education over the last dozen years, and, for the most part, it has shown us that there are better ways to teach than the lecture-problem set-quiz approach that we embrace today in SME subjects.

Improving the freshman year experience

Any faculty member who has served as a freshman advisor has seen the excitement in many of their advisees wane by Thanksgiving, and has watched their students adopt a survival mentality by spring break. This is not true for all freshmen. A fortunate minority find something that keeps their interest in learning alive. For some about-to-be Course 6 majors, it is taking 6.001 fall term. For others it is ESG, 16.00, Mission 2000, or engaging in UROP. Our problem statement is: “How do we keep this level of enthusiasm in all freshmen?” The “project-based” column in the current SME proposal is an attempt to address this problem, but needs a goals-based discussion to refine it.

Preparation for the international stage

MIT has terrific international programs. We have internships (e.g., MISTI), study abroad programs and exchanges designed for MIT students, such as the Cambridge-MIT Exchange, and research and public service projects, such as D-lab, the IDEAS competition, and Public Service Fellowships. About 20% of our students are able to engage in one of these while an undergrad. We need to grapple with the problem of how to expand these opportunities to make them possible for all who want them. Moreover, any changes we make to the SME and HASS GIRs should support the goal of providing international opportunities for our students.

I believe that we can find common ground in principles and goals, which will allow us to lay a strong foundation for the next 50 years of undergraduate education at MIT. We might begin by appointing a study group, which will engage the faculty in a discussion of concrete principles and goals, and then turn to the task of reviewing specific proposals for the HASS and SME core.

J. Kim Vandiver is Dean for Undergraduate Research.

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