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Faculty To Review GIRs

By Beckett W. Sterner


MIT will launch a review of the undergraduate General Institute Requirements to consider the effects of changes that have occurred in the student body.

In the next month, MIT President Charles M. Vest said he will appoint a task force responsible for reevaluating the GIRs, including the common science requirements for all freshmen, such as Physics I (8.01).

Dean for Undergraduate Education Robert P. Redwine said at the Sept. 17 faculty meeting that the reasons for conducting the review included a broadening and diversification of the student body over the past decades, a desire to introduce more hands on experiences, and a dissatisfaction with the Institute Laboratory requirement.

“I’ve heard no discussion up to now that we have a system that is badly broken,” he said, but “a lot of things have changed over the years.”

Redwine said that there remained “a strong consensus on the existence of a core,” but that “less may be more” in the area of required classes.

Redwine said that MIT is open to the possibility of implementing an alternative to the GIRs, although no plans currently exist.

In an e-mail, Vest wrote that the outcome of the review “could be revolution, evolution or reaffirmation.”

More information, like the timetable for the task force’s work, is expected to be announced when Vest gives his charge to the task force.

Effect of greater diversity unclear

“There is no question that the breadth of interest of our students ... have changed enormously during the last two or three decades,” Vest wrote. “We should acknowledge and understand this.”

Redwine said that “very bright students these days tend to have a lot of interests” and can make stronger connections between classes in different fields.

However, he said, the effects are “not totally clear,” and would take further study.

He said he expected that the task force will not loosen the requirements but might “try to integrate it a bit more” instead.

Talk of engineering GIR class

Professor Jerome H. Milgram ’61 said at the faculty meeting that he was “surprised” that there was “no thought given to how to introduce what engineering is” to freshmen.

He said that perhaps students could have the option of biology or an “Introduction to Engineering” course as one of their requirements.

Many freshmen, he said, do not appreciate how essential the math and physics GIRs are to engineering, but “might have a lot more interest ... if they knew how well” those courses fit in with engineering subjects.

“It seems to me almost obvious we should have it,” he said, but “it’s very hard for me to find what can afford” to be cut in the GIRs to make space.

Lab requirement being questioned

Redwine said that he has hardly ever heard of a faculty member who’s satisfied with the Institute Lab requirement.

The requirement was originally “meant to be something where the student had a significant place in designing the experiment,” he said, but department offerings sometimes fall short.

Currently, an undergraduate at MIT is required to take 12 units of classes designated as Institute laboratories.

Redwine said that research jobs through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program have in part “taken the place” of the lab requirement.

“It’s probably telling us the original goal of lab requirements may have been unrealistic,” he said.

The Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department head, John V. Guttag, said that the department was “pretty happy” with the current lab offerings.

“MIT ought to have a lab requirement,” he said.

Guttag said that Laboratory in Software Engineering (6.170), which is a required course for computer science majors but is not an Institute laboratory, lets students choose and design their own projects.

Marc A. Kastner, the physics department head, said that a physics project lab was offered for many years, but that fewer and fewer students were taking it. He said that the department would continue to require 8.13 and 8.14, Experimental Physics I and II, even if the Institute lab requirement were lifted.