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Programs Differ in Teaching Style

By Eric Richard
Associate News Editor

In addition to the traditional course offerings, freshmen have the opportunity to choose from three alternative programs that offer variations on the traditional lecture and recitation format.

Concourse, the Experimental Study Group, and the Integrated Studies Program all rely on smaller learning environments to help students gain a better understanding of the fundamentals of the freshman core curriculum and allow for more freedom in exploring related material. But the programs differ in their approach and personality.

Professor Robert M. Rose '58, program director for Concourse, described the idea of using small classes and a few staff members as "the oldest idea in education." Members of Concourse "become part of a small community," he said.

"MIT, in itself, is a very intimidating place," said Vernon M. Ingram, director of ESG. "But because of its size, ESG is less intimidating."

Debra G. Aczel, administrator of ISP, described ISP as "an alternative to being part of a large body" which provides "special attention to all students."

However, outside of the idea of using a small learning community, the three programs each use very different methods for improving the educational experience.

Concourse emphasizes structure

Concourse attempts to present students with the freshmen curriculum in as unified a manner as possible. It "emphasizes the connections between the different subjects and so enhances both the memory and understanding," Rose wrote in a letter to freshmen.

Concourse is "a small school within a school." It has its own classroom, lounge, and faculty, Rose continued.

Students enrolled in Concourse take at least three core classes each term within the Concourse program. Since all lectures are provided by Concourse faculty, Rose explained that the classes can move at their own pace. "If it looks like people are falling behind in calculus, we can slow down the pace in physics until calculus catches up. ... If I am not satisfied with the pace of things, I will meet with the freshmen over breakfast and discuss it with them."

Rose summarized the program saying, "We try to get all the advantages of a small school, without giving up the resources of MIT."

Rose added that the program is strongly structured and warned that Concourse is not well-suited for students who have advanced placement credit and are planning to move ahead.

Concourse may also not be for students who prefer to work alone, since Concourse encourages students to work together, Rose said.

In addition to the regular classes offered during the term, Concourse has also began offering a special class during Independent Activities Period on a trial basis. The class is a problem solving course using the methods taught in Soviet-style schools. "In the old Soviet Union, this is how they learned," Rose said. "This appears to be a very powerful educational tool."

Students taking the seminar last year used entrance exams to Moscow University to learn problem solving skills as well as the fundamentals of both math and physics, he added.

Ultimately, Rose hopes to be able to expand the seminars into regular classes.

ESG allows for personal pace

ESG courses are taught in small study groups, self-paced tutorials, and discussion-oriented seminars which allow for personalized teaching.

According to one student enrolled in ESG last term, ESG provides "a personalized teaching environment -- a class that would adjust to my pace -- and instructors that would take the lectures in the direction that interested me."

ESG courses are not even limited by the standard semester format of classes, as ambitious students can finish a course before the end of the term while others can take more time to finish a course without penalty. "While there may be one group that will finish [18.01] in 8 weeks, another group may take 16 weeks to do the same thing," said Holly B. Sweet, associate director of ESG.

Students can also begin the next subject in a sequence whenever they want. According to Ingram, this makes ESG ideal for students who have one month of 18.02, but not enough to place out.

He also said that ESG is ideal for "students from abroad who have big holes in some areas but great strengths in others." In fact, ESG commonly attracts one-fourth of the international students in the freshmen class, Sweet added.

The lack of defined structure in the classes also allows students to "make their lives more interesting [by] exploring sub-topics that interest them," according to Ingram.

"We were able to learn the material more effectively in my ESG calculus class because we spent a greater amount of time on the more difficult topics and less time on the easier ones," said one student enrolled in ESG in Fall 1992. "We were also able to set our own pace as far as taking exams was concerned."

However, because of this freedom, both Ingram and Sweet say that ESG is not for those who are not motivated or who can not pace themselves.

ISP provides hands-on experience

"If you want to learn about technologies, then you'd better try it," said ISP Director Aczel. "What they hear about theoretically, we let them practice."

Students enrolled in ISP take the standard core of classes with the rest of the freshmen, but attend special recitations. They also enroll in a humanities class particular to ISP, which Aczel described as "the center of the program." In this sense, ISP tries to integrate its students into MIT since they have "one foot here, and one foot [in the mainstream] with everybody else," Aczel said.

ISP students learn about "how cultures have dealt with different materials" in a very hand-on manner, according to Aczel. "They try their hands at blacksmithing. ... They try cooking using materials of different cultures. ... They weave in the tradition of Andean weavers. ... And they take apart an engine."

Aczel said that ISP seems to attract a wide cross-section of MIT students. "Some come here because they need extra help. ... Others have [placed] out of many courses."

ISP Assistant Marshall Hughes said, "It's a mutt course, and that is its strong point."

Openings still available

With each of the alternative programs emphasizing small community learning, spaces in the programs are limited. While ISP works on a first come, first serve basis, both Concourse and ESG are available through lotteries.

ISP and ESG will be holding open houses today and Concourse will be having a mandatory meeting in the afternoon for interested students. Each of the programs will also be represented at the Academic Expo tomorrow afternoon.