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Engineering study group proposes five-year degree

By Miguel Cantillo

A five-year degree for engineers and a possible reduction in the time scale for obtaining a master's degree are among the changes proposed by the School of Engineering Long Range Planning Group last summer in an attempt to modify its undergraduate curriculum. The plan is intended to provide "technical and non-technical breadth," according to Professor of Electrical Engineering Richard B. Adler '43.

The goal is to include technical courses that would approach problems from different angles, Adler said. The need for more technical and non-technical expertise comes from the fact that the "boundary conditions" of engineering subjects have become more complex, he added.

The number of technical subjects required for an engineering degree would not be reduced, according to Acting Dean of the School of Engineering Jack L. Kerrebrock. "We're not going soft," he stressed. Instead, the proposed plan would widen the scope of technical subjects taken by students.

Undergraduates would be required to take two semesters in chemistry or biology, two in physics, three in math, two in information sciences and one elective subject for a total of 10. Twelve engineering subjects would also be required, with eight or less in one's own discipline. The requirements in humanities and social sciences would remain the same.

The School of Engineering would need more than four years to provide this wider base in technical subjects and at the same time provide the depth necessary for qualified engineers, according to the planning group's report. Hence the idea of expanding the program to a five-year one. The possibility of including a master's degree within this five-year program is still under discussion.

One option would be to grant a degree for a "concentration" in a particular field after the fourth year, Adler said. A full-fledged degree would then be given to students who chose to complete the five-year program, he added. This scheme would give more flexibility to the program.

The group also suggested that the master's program could be shortened. MIT's current engineering master's programs are intended for both students who see the master's as a terminal degree, and those who see it as a predoctoral stage. The group recommended a master's program that would be shorter (two or three terms) and would finish with a project or a shorter thesis aimed at particular industrial questions instead of pure research.

The idea of an engineer's education continuing after graduation was also addressed by the Long Range Plan Group. To this end, it was suggested that the Engineering School give regular MIT subjects on a weekend format for professionals. Other initiatives included the video instruction of engineering subjects, and one-day seminars on campus.

One of the most difficult problems raised by the plan is how it would be financed, Kerrebrock said. Since a shorter master's program would mean a higher turnover rate for graduate students, faculty research could be slowed down. It could be difficult for faculty to hire short-term students for teaching assistant or research assistant positions.

The industrial sector could provide an alternative source of financing, possibly through internships, Kerrebrock said. Since industries are concerned with the engineer's long term success, they are likely to support a program that provides students with a broader education, he added.