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Concourse Stresses Learning in Small Groups

By Sonali Mukherjee

Imagine that you are a freshman entering MIT, and you’ve just started your first day of classes. You’re standing in the middle of the infinite corridor, studying your ostentatiously fluorescent green Hitchhiker’s Guide in a desperate attempt to figure out where 26-100 is so you can get to your 8.01 lecture--which is scheduled to start in thirty seconds. You run into the lecture hall, out of breath, and plop into the nearest available seat. Then you gaze down over sea of heads until you finally spot the lecturer--thirty rows down. While many freshmen experienced this on September 8th, others approached their first rendezvous with MIT academics in a very different manner.

Meet Concourse, an alternative first year program for freshmen at MIT. Concourse offers a limited number of freshmen the chance to do all their classes in a personal and comfortable environment, as opposed to the anonymity many people feel in large lecture halls in the mainstream curriculum. The program began twenty-nine years ago in a joint effort between the School of Engineering, Science, and Humanities to create a program that would allow freshmen to experience academics at MIT in a manner that would be conducive to learning and comprehension. While the sixty-three students currently enrolled in Concourse are being taught the same material as other freshmen, they also have exclusive opportunities to learn that material in an extraordinary manner. However, they still have the same problem sets to do.

“Concourse is great,” says Tilke M. Judd ’03, a current participant. She describes the program as a large support system where the whole Concourse community binds together to help each other learn, whether it be working on problem set, attending rigorous nightly tutorials, or studying for exams. Concourse offers many of the classes most freshmen take, but some have an interesting twist.

For instance, Concourse Chemistry is a novel blend of 5.11 and 3.091 which prepares students for Organic Chemistry.

SP.345, otherwise known as Problem Solving in Science and Technology, is a class offered exclusively to Concourse students during IAP that takes the physics and mathematics taught during the fall semester and re-teaches it using enigmatic puzzles. The instructor, Professor Yuri B. Cherynyak, put many of these puzzles into a book entitled The Chicken from Minsk, which he co-wrote with Concourse Chemistry Professor Robert M. Rose.

Another special class, SP.344 or Problems in Electricity and Magnetism, is taken concurrently with 8.02 to reinforce topics taught in the class.

Concourse has a reputation for being very rigid in its academic focus. However, this is a characteristic that appeals to many freshmen and attracts them to the program. For Kristin A. Tappan ’03, a combination of small classes, personal attention, and a coordinated schedule made the program just right for her needs. “It was something that made the big change to college classes more manageable. It’s really nice to have an organized schedule.”

Judd also noted the manner in which Concourse classes are arranged. “All the classes are one after another, without any dead space in between. We don’t waste an hour or so trying to decide what to do in between two class periods.”

John R. Malave ’03 also appreciates the way that Concourse is set up because it does not conflict with Navy ROTC, a large commitment of his. “It’s like it’s own little school with morning classes that you have finished around noon,” he said. Malave is one of the few students at Concourse that take one class in the mainstream curriculum, but he finds the ambiance of the program more to his liking. “I have found it a more relaxing and helping environment.”

Despite the set schedule, Concourse students and faculty have very good relations because they associate with each other on a more intimate level than students and professors in the mainstream curriculum. Examples of this are the “Chemistry Breakfasts” and “Physics Breakfasts” where students awaken at the bright and early hour of 7:30 a.m. for the chance to eat and converse with their professors on unusual topics in their respective fields. By having these breakfasts, “you get to know your professors on a more personal level,” says Malave. “They get to know you as more than just a face in a class.”

Concourse’s alternative teaching style has continued to attract many freshmen to its classrooms in Building 16. With distinguished and skilled professors, dedicated undergraduate tutors, and inquisitive freshmen ready to assimilate themselves into the all-encompassing world of MIT, this program brings a fresh sense to the idea of preparing students for the next four years. Tappan says her Concourse instructors, “they’re very helpful, and they put in a lot of time, effort, and patience to help us.”