The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 40.0°F | Partly Cloudy

6.002 Pilot Program To Begin This Spring

By Kathy Lin

STAFF REPORTER

An experimental, case-based version of Circuits and Electronics (6.002) will be offered in the Spring 2003 term in addition to the regular version of 6.002.

The experimental class is part of “a one-year pilot investigation,” which is “intended to lay a foundation for transforming the EECS [electrical engineering and computer science] core curriculum -- 6.001 [Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs], 6.002, 6.003 [Signals and Systems], and 6.004 [Computation Structures] -- to a new structure,” according to the funding proposal for the program.

“The main goal ... is to move to a different style of learning that presents material in case-study form and encourages more interaction through greater emphasis on tutorials,” said Professor Harold Abelson, one of two principal investigators for the pilot program.

New teaching method introduced

A case-study-based program would help students because “programming in terms of actual cases in the real world is more interesting, and it’s attached to something,” said Gerald J. Sussman, a Course VI (EECS) professor who is the other principal investigator for the pilot.

In the spirit of New Pathways, the Harvard Medical School program on which that this pilot is based, the developers of the pilot believe that “education should be the capacity for scientific thinking, rather than just a collection of scientific facts, and that learning should be a process of discovery,” according to the proposal.

The new program will feature much smaller and more personal tutorial sessions. “Students will get real access to faculty and interact,” Sussman said. Abelson and Sussman are hoping that local alumni and engineers will eventually participate by serving as tutorial instructors.

“The pilot is the beginning of a long-term, ambitious project, which will require careful planning and monitoring by the Department and the Institute,” according to the proposal. If this “one-year demonstration and feasibility study” go well, the professors hope the program will continue with “a four- to five-year evolutionary process” towards “full-scale implementation.”

Program launches 6.002 pilot

The 21-student 6.002 pilot this spring will be the first class offered by the program. “The experimental version will cover almost the same material as the regular 6.002,” and “the workload and level of difficulty should be the same for the two versions,” according to a message distributed to 6.001 and 18.02 students earlier this month. However, instead of recitations, students will meet in small, seven-student tutorials “with a faculty tutor to explore cases” twice a week.

“Unlike the regular 6.002 ... course material will be presented in the context of studying complete applications such as X-10 home signalling, audio amplification, and noise cancellation,” according to the message.

Enrollment in the class requires permission from the class instructors. “We’ve had a lot of people sending us e-mails,” said Sussman. “The response has been good.”

There are also plans to develop an experimental year-long integrated 6.001 and 6.002 for a select group of next year’s incoming freshmen.

Pilot classes test effectiveness

Many questions about the feasibility and practicality of a case-based teaching approach in engineering education, especially how adequately it could address fundamental material, remain.

“That’s a reason for the experiment,” Sussman said. “We know [a case-based approach] works for medicine, business, and law, but applying it to engineering requires trying to work out all the details. ... [All the Course VI faculty] I’ve talked to think it’s a good thing to at least try,”

“The point of trying a single section in this mode is to find out if it’s an effective way of teaching the class. If it is, we’ll expand it. If it’s not, then we’ll try something else,” said 6.001 professor W. Eric L. Grimson.

Students are similarly receptive to an experimental class. “For 6.002, I think I would definitely get a lot more out of it with more case studies,” said Michael J. Ehrenberg ’06, who is currently enrolled in 6.001.

Ehrenberg also had his doubts. “The only downside is that I don’t know if I would want to be in an experimental class because they usually have lots of problems that need to be worked out, but after that they are definitely a good idea,” he said.

The one-year pilot investigation is sponsored by the EECS department and the d’Arbeloff Fund for Excellence in MIT Education. Plans for future funding are under development.