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Committee Sets Out to Revamp Freshman Curriculum by 2001

By Alex Ianculescu
STAFF REPORTER

Plans to dramatically restructure the freshman curriculum by 2001 were announced last week by Dean for Undergraduate Curriculum Kip V. Hodges PhD '82, although nothing has formally been decided upon as of yet.

Dubbed the "Educational Design Project," the goal of the proposed restructuring is to improve the spirit of first-year students and prepare them for further study in their major, Hodges said.

"Freshmen typically get burned out half-way through the semester. It's sad for us to see freshmen so enthusiastic and excited during Orientation, and then by late October to see them seem to carry the weight of the world," Hodges said.

One major focus of the new group looking at the freshman year is cutting down the academic pace of MIT and to design course subjects so that they are more interactive and group-based, Hodges said.

"There is currently too much pace and pressure, and not enough time for quiet reflection to see the entire breadth of opportunity at the Institute," Hodges said.

Committee will propose changes

A student-faculty subcommittee of the Committee on the Undergraduate Program and the Dean's Office has been formed to outline the scope of the changes to the freshman year. Hodges and Professor of Media Arts and Sciences Stephen A. Benton will co-chair this committee.

The committee may propose a series of experimental subjects to be offered as soon as next year and even as early as the spring, Hodges said. Students would take the classes on a voluntary basis, he said.

"We hope to come up with a design by the end of this academic year, and to initiate a pilot program before we actually implement the changes," Hodges said.

Hodges said that the collaboration between the administration and faculty is not that typical, calling it "fairly unusual."

The CUP has the traditional responsibility of making recommendations about curricular changes to the full faculty must approve all changes.

Ideas may not be implemented

Many ideas have come to the fore in meetings of the new subcommittee. However, with a final deadline three years into the future, few propositions have been set in stone as of yet. "There are a lot of details to work out in coming months," Hodges said.

The main objective of the freshman "curricular evolution," is to determine if the current General Institute Requirements are the best way to educate students, Hodges said. He feels that the core classes need to include a higher proportion of teamwork because "students learn by doing."

In addition, Hodges said that freshmen should be involved more in research, which might require an extension of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, or "even a completely different way of doing research."

Yet another suggestion to improve the freshman curriculum is through the use of electronic technology instead of the blackboard, Hodges said, essentially eliminating the lecture style of teaching.

However, the prospect of restructuring the freshman curriculum remains a "complicated process,"Hodges said. "We are trying to improve the freshman year experience, and for many years there has been this discussion among faculty and students," he said.

The educational design project subcommittee will consult many sources in the course of its deliberations, Hodges said.

"We are trying to get information from the extended MIT community," Hodges said. "This includes faculty, undergraduates, graduates, advising services, alumni who know the outside world as well as life at MIT, employers, and representatives from law and medical schools."

Another emphasis of the educational redesign project, according to Hodges, is the need to "get input from as many students as possible. We don't want any closed doors. Anyone is welcome to make suggestions, and we want all concerns heard. MIT freshmen are the best and brightest students of their generation, and it annoys me to think that we're not giving [them] the best education possible."

Another concern about the present freshman year program is that students do not make informed decisions about choosing a major, Hodges said. "Freshmen are making decisions without knowing what they're getting into."

One prime example is Physics I (8.01), Hodges said. The introductory physics class, which a majority of freshmen take first semester, covers only the basics of mechanics. Consequently, freshmen may not get a good idea of the field of physics and how exactly practicing physicists work by the time they choose their majors.

Freshmen have mixed reactions

However, despite efforts being made to change the freshman curriculum, many students seem satisfied with their first-year experience.

"It's a good year to get adjusted on pass-fail," said Dhruv Puri '02. "There's no stress whatsoever."

Others disagree. Leela R. Ramnath '02 feels there is much stress even in the freshman year, despite the pass/no credit grading system. "It's not as easy to pass as you would think."

Desiree L. Ramirez '02, said she was "definitely not prepared in high school for this caliber of a university. It is all a big challenge, which is exciting and depressing at the same time."

However, many commented that MIT provides a good support system for its students.

"I like the way the whole thing comes together with lectures, recitations, office hours, and other tutorial help," Puri said. "It's much easier to find help here than it was in high school."

Program will have wide scope

The history of education at MIT has been "littered with attempts to change the freshman year program, with such groups as Concourse, [Experimental Study Group], and [Integrated Studies Program]," Hodges said, "but these groups can only serve a small number of freshmen. We want a program that can serve the rest of the freshmen."

However, Hodges admits that the design committee has many ideas but has not taken much action. "We are long on we hope to' and short on things we've actually done."

"We're in a world where what you learn now is in part obsolete within ten years," Hodges said. "There is no way for the curriculum to adapt quickly enough because things just change too fast. Since we can't teach students everything, we need to teach them how to learn for the rest of their life, and this is the core of education."