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Panel Discusses Revision of GIRs

By Kathy Lin and Kelley Rivoire


At a presentation on MacVicar Day last Friday, members of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons presented their ideas about the future of the General Institute Requirements while stressing that no final decisions had been made.

The presentation focused on suggested modifications to add flexibility to the six subject science core while maintaining rigor, and possible simplifications to the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences requirement.

The purpose of the committee is to “conduct a fundamental, comprehensive review of the undergraduate common experience,” said Robert J. Silbey, chair of the Task Force and dean of the School of Science. The last major revision occurred in 1964, he said.

Flexible science core proposed

The Task Force is faced with the challenges of optimizing the four years that undergraduates typically spend at MIT, which are too limited for all the items the Task Force would like to include in the undergraduate curriculum, Silbey said.

One requirement under discussion is the six subject required science core. According to excerpts from a draft report of the Task Force Subcommittee on Optimizing the Science Engineering Components of the GIRs, “in the opinion of almost all Subcommittee members, the current six-subject Science Core is insufficient general preparation for our students.”

Those opposed to the present requirement recommend “an increase in the number of quantitative subjects that comprise the Science Core,” as either requirements or electives. Possible extensions to the present requirement include subjects in probability, statistics, computation, ordinary differential equations, linear algebra, and complex natural or engineering systems, according to the report.

The Task Force is “interested in increasing the flexibility of the science core,” Silbey said. “How we do it is still on the table.”

One idea is to expand the scope of the science core, with four required classes and two additional science requirements selected from a list of subjects, while another is to replace the two Restricted Electives in Science and Engineering with two prescribed subjects.

There is also strong interest in replacing the current laboratory requirement with a project-based experience, potentially in the first year, which would help increase students’ excitement in their freshman year, Silbey said.

According to the draft Subcommittee report, “a balanced and well-integrated Science and Engineering Core and a mandatory project-based experience would substantially improve MIT undergraduate education.”

The committee believes that it is important to “maintain the current rigor of the core, regardless of any other change,” Silbey said.

HASS revisions considered

The “current HASS requirement is a complicated requirement” because “we are trying to do a lot,” said Professor of Political Science Charles Stewart III, a member of the task force. As a result, the HASS requirement is “just a mess” and like “a three-ring circus,” Stewart said.

There have been many simplification proposals over the years, Stewart said.

One idea under consideration is to provide a common HASS experience for students. Students could be given the choice of small classes in five categories, such as revolution, love, creativity, democracy, and Shakespeare, Stewart said.

Options being considered in relation to this idea include the duration of the classes (one semester or two), whether Communication Intensive elements would be embedded in the classes, and whether this sort of requirement would ensure a sufficient breadth of experience to eliminate the HASS-Distribution requirement.

This plan “looks sort of like a unified freshman experience,” Stewart said, but still permits flexibility.

“Would MIT be better if there was this extra common experience?” Stewart asked. “It’s not clear this would be the right thing to do,” he said.

Report suggests changes

A draft report from the Task Force Subcommittee on Balancing the Majors and the GIRs proposes additional recommendations: encouraging interdisciplinary education with new degree plans, initiating a freshman design project, advocating international educational experiences, better introducing freshmen to the goals of an MIT education, improving academic and career advising, stipulating that departmental programs look at how science and engineering affect society, and rethinking the use of advanced placement credit in core subjects.

To fulfill the recommendation of encouraging interdisciplinary education, one idea is to change the double major so that students must complete all the requirements for both majors, but no additional units, as the current system requires. Another possibility would be a dual or combined degree, which would include reduced requirements for both degree programs, as well as an interdisciplinary capstone project.

The report also suggests that MIT set up a “central office to coordinate and expand the opportunities for students to study or intern abroad.”

Framing the goals

According to a document handed out at the presentation, “in the early stages of its deliberations, the Task Force developed a set of working principles about MIT’s educational philosophy in order to frame its review of the General Institute Requirements.”

The Task Force’s draft goal statement is the following: “an MIT education is one grounded in science and technology that ignites a passion for learning, provides the intellectual and personal foundations for future development, and illuminates the breadth, depth and diversity of human knowledge and experience, in order to enable each student to develop a personal, coherent intellectual identity.”

The document also lists the expectations of the faculty for an MIT undergraduate education as: a persistent passion for learning, intellectual diversity, an innovative approach to core knowledge, collaborative learning, and education for responsible leadership.

Silbey, who called his presentation on Friday an effort to be “provocative,” expects to receive more suggestions from the MIT community. “You open up the box, and people start thinking about it,” he said.

No entire draft has been released, and no date has been set for a release, said Anne McLeod, staff associate for the office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education.