The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 24.0°F | A Few Clouds and Breezy

MechE Uses Athena for Course Reviews

By Amy Hsu

In its first year of conducting course evaluations using Athena, Pi Tau Sigma, the mechanical engineering honor society, received a 20 to 25 percent response rate.

Organizers said the low response this was caused by late notification of students. They hope to avoid the problem net semester.

"I'd been trying for 10 to 15 years to use computers for evaluations, but Athena only came into the picture three to four years ago," said Undergraduate Mechanical Engineering Officer David G. Wilson.

In the past, students completed the evaluations during class, and a typist transcribed the comments to preserve anonymity. This process was expensive, and it took three to four weeks to complete, Wilson said. Thus, the responses were compiled too late for the instructors to implement any of the suggested changes.

While the Athena evaluations decreased the turnaround time to about one week, the response rate was disappointingly low, Wilson said. He said that an 80 percent response rate would have provided an ideal representation of student opinions. In comparison, the Undergraduate Association Course Evaluation Guide typically receives between a 5 and 50 percent response rate for Course II classes.

Short notice causes low response

Students had the opportunity to evaluate 12 core mechanical engineering classes during one week in early November. However, most students received the PTS memorandum describing the Athena evaluations only a few days before the evaluation period ended. Thus, instructors were told that the results were not representative of general student opinion.

Next term, students will receive more advance information, and professors will be asked to emphasize the importance of the evaluations, Wilson said.

Some students, however, believe that the response rate for Athena evaluations will never be as high as the previous response rates for written evaluations.

"I think the old way was better because then everybody did [the evaluations in class]," said David G. Rodriguez '95. "The opportunity was right there."

Another Course II student added, "I had some things to say ... but when I got to Athena, I always had more pressing things to do."

Carrie J. Heitman '96 added, "I'm not at Athena on campus often enough."

The software for the Athena evaluations was written by PTS Vice President Craig B. Zilles '94. Zilles hopes to expand the program to include all workstations and the dialup service. Currently, the program works only on DECstations and VAXstations. Zilles also wants to incorporate the registrar's course lists into the program.

In addition, Zilles said that anonymity is not a problem because the program automatically strips the identifying header from the electronic mail before forwarding it.