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Enriching the Freshman Experience

I am writing to respond to The Tech article [“CUP Releases Report on Pass / NR,” Sept. 26] concerning the proposed changes in Pass/No Record grading. The writer expressed a sentiment that is shared by many faculty, myself included: MIT does not do a good enough job of providing freshmen with adequate information about the variety of choices available to them. This applies to the broad array of opportunities for exploration, as well as the more limited question of their future major.

However, the issues of Pass/No Record grading are more or less decoupled from the problems of freshman advising. The CUP’s Subcommittee on Pass/No Record Grading and AP Credit has made thoughtful and educationally motivated proposals which should be discussed within the MIT community, even while we pursue improvements in the advising system.

Last year the Committee on the Undergraduate Program solicited proposals from the faculty for innovative projects that would improve the first-year experience -- an initiative supported by the d’Arbeloff Fund. As a result this year freshmen are being offered several pilot subjects and programs intended to give them a chance to explore new areas and thus avoid the trap of (in the editorial’s words) the “rigid, inflexible schedule of basic requirements.” One of the new subjects is being offered this term by Professor Kip Hodges. “Mission 2004” is giving 50 freshmen a chance to work in teams to solve complex, interesting problems that require the creative integration of concepts from other first-term subjects. We hope that more such project-based experiences can be part of the regular freshman program in the future.

In the spring term, two other new activities will be offered to first-year students. One, an undergraduate seminar, “Factories and Laboratories,” will give freshmen a chance to explore the areas in science, technology, bioengineering, and medicine at the Institute and in the world beyond MIT.

The seminar involves a series of visits to sites at MIT and field trips throughout the Boston area. It will feature talks and visits by faculty members and alumni experts who will tie the material to larger questions of science, technology and society.

Another new opportunity for freshmen this year will be the chance to join “BioMatrix,” a supplementary advising program that will give students a non-didactic, hands-on opportunity to observe and participate in the biological sciences. It is hoped that BioMatrix activities (evening seminars and social gatherings, field trips, group projects, etc.) will help students explore and make decisions about study and career opportunities in the biological sciences.

In addition, the CUP this year will be taking a look at other aspects of freshman advising and opportunities for experimentation. CUP may once again solicit proposals to enrich the freshman experience. We know that there is more to be done to help students make informed choices in the first year and to get better advice and guidance as they’re making those choices. At the same time, freshman year grading is a subject long overdue for discussion. I would welcome hearing from students on any of these topics.

Robert L. Jaffe
Chair, Committee on the Undergraduate Program