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Keep IAP Free of Academic Obligations

For over 20 years, Independent Activities Period has offered students a different way to experience MIT. Instead of working on problem sets, exams, and papers, IAP offers students the chance to attend seminars, go on field trips, and spend time on research projects. Faculty often find time during IAP to rework a course, brush up on their teaching skills, or delve more deeply into a research project.

But if the Department of Chemical Engineering has its way, the days of IAP as we know it are numbered. Course X has proposed teaching Introduction to Computer Methods (10.001), a 6-unit programming class, exclusively during IAP. If approved -- and given administrators' attitudes, some sort of approval seems likely -- 10.001 would be the first required classroom subject offered exclusively during January.

On the face of it, the proposal seems reasonable: After all, 10.001 is a short, time-intensive subject, fits awkwardly into a student's regular schedule, and requires computer resources that are difficult to find during the regular semesters. Administrators feel that 10.001 is one of a small number of subjects well-suited to IAP, and that both students and faculty would benefit if the class were only offered during January.

Such reasoning should worry anyone who cares about IAP. Every department -- not just Course X -- offers at least one subject which would be "better" if it were taught during IAP. But for 20 years, the rules governing IAP have stopped those departments from taking away the one month during which both students and faculty have some sense of freedom.

Some would argue that the large number of students taking 10.001 during IAP, even when it is offered during the fall, means that students would prefer to take it then. But a quick look at the class enrollment reveals that a large percentage of the students are freshmen trying to find a way around the credit limit, rather than upperclassmen trying to turn IAP into a third full semester.

If the 10.001 proposal is approved, students can expect other departments to line up with their own proposals for required IAP subjects. Perhaps, as in the case of 10.001, these will be subjects that were previously taught during other semesters, but that would be "better suited" to IAP. But it is more likely that departments would take advantage of this opportunity and create new subjects especially suited for IAP, only increasing the load on students.

Departments will argue that moving classes to IAP is the best means of addressing the need for engineering programs to teach students more before granting them degrees. Filling IAP with classwork is a temporary solution at best, however. The Departments of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Aeronautics and Astronautics have already recognized that five years of training are, or will soon be, necessary to create effective professional engineers. Adding requirements during IAP is no substitute for the depth such longer programs would provide.

If the faculty cares about the future of IAP, it will reject the Department of Chemical Engineering's proposal. Approving the request would begin a process that would lead to the eventual demise of one of MIT's greatest educational achievements.