MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XX No. 1
September / October 2007
20th Anniversary of FNL:
A Brief History of its Founding
Faculty Representation? How?
Newsletter Most Popular Among MIT Faculty
Transparency and Communication
A Call for Nominations to the
Newsletter Editorial Board
Hockfield to Write on "State of the Institute"
in Next Newsletter
Teaching this fall? You should know . . .
America's Infrastructure
Engineering Dilemma
Is it Time for a New Manhattan Project?
Update on the Implementation of the Recommendations of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons
Experimental Project-Based Subjects:
A Hit With Students
Faculty Calendar
Student Systems – A Vision for the Future
MIT 1st in Engineering, 7th Overall
in Latest U.S. News Ranking
Combining Investment with Philanthropy: Faculty and the MIT Endowment
Proficiency in Customary Units
Who's Who in the MIT Administration
Campus Population in Representative Years: % Change and Absolute Numbers
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Experimental Project-Based Subjects:
A Hit with Students

Dennis M. Freeman, Elizabeth D. Cooper, William A. Lucas

Six experimental project-based subjects were taught for the first time during the 2006-2007 academic year. The impetus for these subjects came from the deliberations of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons, which has recommended freshman projects as one way to increase freshman motivation and enthusiasm, as well as to introduce more active learning in the first year.  Specific goals were established for the project-based subjects that included:

  • learning opportunities that involve either design or creation,
  • the synthesis of ideas and techniques,
  • the use of real-world problems to motivate the acquisition of disciplinary knowledge,
  • cross-disciplinary interactions needed to address design problems,
  • outcomes that are not narrowly prescribed in advance, but rather defined through informed decisions. [Report of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons, p. 49.]

MIT has traditionally taught a number of project-based subjects at the upperclass level. Only a few project-based subjects are offered in the first year:  2.000 (How and Why Machines Work), 12.000 (Solving Complex Problems), and 16.00 (Introduction to Aerospace and Design). Faculty from these highly successful subjects provided valuable insight and experience to faculty developing the six new subjects taught this past year.

Funding for subject development and resources for the first year of classes came from the d’Arbeloff Fund for Excellence in Education. [See for more information.]  

Subjects included:

  • Exploring Sea, Space and Earth: FUNdaMENTALS of Engineering
    Joint subject listed in Aero/Astro and MechE
    Faculty: A. Techet (Mech E), A. Slocum (Mech E), D. Newman (Aero/Astro), E. Crawley (Aero/Astro).
  • Solving Real Problems
    Mech E subject
    Faculty: D. Wallace (Mech E), D. Frey (Mech E, ESD)
  • CityScope Destination 2007: New Orleans
    Joint subject listed in Architecture and Urban Planning
    Faculty: J.P. Thompson (Urban Planning), J. Fernandez (Architecture)
  • Energy, Environment and Society
    Chemistry subject
    Faculty: J. Steinfeld (Chemistry), J. Tester (Chem E), A. Graham (LFEE)
  • Freshman Projects in Microscale Engineering for the Life Sciences
    Joint subject listed in EECS and HST
    Faculty: D. Freeman (EECS), A. Aranyosi (RLE), M. Gray (HST)
  • Physics of Energy
    Joint subject listed in EECS and Architecture
    Faculty: J. Kirtley (EECS), S. Leeb (EECS), L. Norford (Architecture).
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Faculty Comments

Most, but not all, faculty taught these subjects in addition to their regular teaching load. Generally faculty felt positive about the PB subjects; they generally agreed they were pleased with the student outcomes and learning. One stated, “I’m converted.” Most felt it was a lot of work, but very worthwhile. Several faculty spoke about having to adjust the amount of work and expectations from the students during the semester. They all hoped to offer the subject again.

There is some concern about the number of credit units for PB subjects. Several subjects offered 12 units credit, while others offered nine. Some faculty felt it was easier to drop the nine-unit courses as evidenced by serious attrition in one of the nine-unit subjects, but that the 12 units could push students into an overload or make it impossible for them to fit a PB subject into their schedule. Several subjects made significant revisions to the syllabus to make them eligible for CI (Communication Requirement) credit. Undesignated CI credit was offered on an experimental basis for one year for the project-based subjects. Students, however, were not convinced, in spite of assurances, that this CI credit would help them.

Resources remain a concern for the project-based subjects. All relied heavily on TA support. Departmental support for subjects was uneven. Space remains an issue.

The general consensus of the faculty was that flexible space was needed because classes had different needs on different days. Those subjects that required specific, non-portable machinery were meeting in evenings and on weekends to access the appropriate space. The ideal space described was one that had access to a machine shop or fabrication facilities, lecture space, design space, and seminar rooms.

Student Outcomes

Out of a class of 999 first-year students, 147 (14.7%) took project-based subjects in either the first or second semester. The gender breakdown was 71 (48%) men, 76 (52%) women, compared with the general first-year population of 55% men and 45% women. A number of assessment methods were used to ascertain whether the project-based subjects had an impact on students. All of last year’s freshmen were surveyed at the beginning and end of their first year, focusing mainly on first-year expectations and on self directed learning styles. In addition, all students in the project-based subjects were surveyed before and after taking the subject to assess self-efficacy in communication, teaming, and other technical areas. The last survey closed mid-July; all findings reported here are preliminary. One student focus group was conducted at the end of the year.

Student expectations. A series of questions were asked on the post-test to see if the freshman year had met student expectations. While there were no differences between PB and non-PB students on several items, and some of the differences would be expected (see below), a general conclusion is that expectations tend to have been better met if the students took a PB subject. The larger positive and statistically significant differences were found for the following:

  • My classes have stimulated my interests in new areas.
  • Some of the subjects I studied this past year were so interesting that I did more than the required work.
  • I have had opportunities for hands-on activities.
  • This past year at MIT I have conducted experiments and/or projects using scientific methods.
  • Since coming to MIT I have been involved in a research project.
  • Some faculty now know me well enough to write a good letter of recommendation for me.

Supporting the faculty concern about the possibility that these courses could contribute to heavy course loads, there was a negative and statistically significant difference, with PB students being less likely to agree that:

  • I have been able to maintain a balance between my academic work and other aspects of my life.

    Additional differences were found that suggest that PB subjects have particular benefits for first-year women.

Females in PB courses were significantly more likely to agree than the rest of the females in the freshman class that the following expectations had been met:

  • I have been able to talk to faculty outside of class about my interests.
  • Some faculty now know me well enough to write a good letter of recommendation for me.
  • Faculty have been encouraging and helpful.
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Student self-confidence in skills. Confidence in task performance, or self-efficacy, is a widely used concept that, among other outcomes, predicts improved learning practices and persistence in careers. The assessment used this concept to examine whether first-year students had confidence they could perform specific tasks in the area of communications, working on teams, and working with technology. In the case of communications, while PB students were somewhat more confident of their communications skills than non-PB students, the differences were small and not statistically significant.

By contrast, differences are found between PB and non-PB students on both their confidence to perform teaming and technology-oriented tasks. Confidence in teaming skills was significantly higher among PB students than for non-PB students. When a check was made by making separate comparisons of PB and non-PB males and females, the differences for the males were modest, but the differences for PB females alone were significantly different than non-PB students. For confidence in working with technology, a similar difference was found only among females, with PB females appearing to benefit with significantly higher self-confidence in their ability to perform technology-oriented tasks than non-PB females.

The findings for women on self efficacy are most interesting. Self-efficacy is linked to academic task goals associated with motivation to master material, deeper learning, and a view of learning as an end in itself. [Pajares, Frank, Shari L. Britner and Giovanni Valiante (2000), “Relationship between achievement goals and self-beliefs of middle school students in writing and science,” Contemporary Education Psychology 25: 406-422.] Further, young women with higher self-efficacy in given fields are more likely to persist in a career in science or engineering. [Mau, Wei-Chang (2003) “Factors that influence persistence in science and engineering career aspirations,” The Career Development Quarterly, March 2003, 51: 3, pp 234-243.] Both genders benefited from increases in project-based planning and teaming skills.

Results on the surveys were validated by the focus group which was, interestingly, all women. The women students uniformly “loved” the classes; found them to be a lot of work, but worthwhile. They were a welcome break from more lecture-based classes. Students appreciated the real-world implications and felt that they learned useful skills such as research and public speaking. Students valued the increased exposure to and attention from the faculty.


The first experimental year for the six new project-based subjects appears to be a success when measured against the initial criteria set by the Task Force. Faculty developed subjects that involved creation or design, but did not prescribe the outcome. Most involved individuals from several departments and academic disciplines. The “real-world” approach appeared to increase student satisfaction that they were receiving the education they had expected, and it resonated particularly with women students.

These six subjects will be taught next academic year and will be joined by two additional subjects. The same assessment activities will continue next year. If findings are consistent, one might posit that the hands-on, real-world approach represented by the project-based subjects is a pedagogical tool that is of general value for MIT freshmen, and of particular value for women in their first year at MIT.

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