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Engineering Might Join Science in GIR Classes

By Kelley Rivoire

After nearly two years of work, the task force reviewing the General Institute Requirements is narrowing down its likely recommendations. One probable major shift is an integration of engineering into what is presently a core science requirement.

The task force has decided on most of the structure of its recommendations, said Robert J. Silbey, chair of task force and dean of the School of Science. “We are tinkering with the structure.”

The GIR content “can be broadened,” he said. “The world has changed.”

The task force is considering revising the eight-subject science core into a science and engineering core with the same number of subjects, but with more opportunity for student choice. The more flexible program might consist of two subjects in mathematics, two in the physical sciences (including geophysics), and one each in the life sciences, chemistry, computation, and engineering, Silbey said.

In each category, students a would have a “limited choice” of subjects to satisfy the requirement, he said, adding that his personal preference would be two or three, though “the committee is fighting about this.” The life sciences requirement, for instance, might be satisfied by either introductory biology or neuroscience, he said.

While the element of choice could present difficulties for students who change their majors, Silbey said departmental cooperation could alleviate some of the potential problems.

The computation and engineering requirements would be additions to the present core. Engineering principles and design have “an appropriate place in the core,” Silbey said, perhaps in a “project-based experience.” The computation requirement might be satisfied by options such as “a redesigned 6.001.”

There is “lots of excitement within engineering for these deliberations,” said Dean of Engineering Thomas L. Magnanti. The GIR review gives MIT an “opportunity to play a leading role” in science and engineering education, he said, adding that School of Engineering department heads are interested in having a curriculum with more flexibility.

To keep the number of subjects in the core at eight, the current two-subject Restricted Electives in Science and Technology requirement would be eliminated. “We want to take those two REST subjects back. We want to put them into the core,” Silbey said.

The Institute laboratory subject, he said, is likely to be eliminated. Because departments have their own laboratory requirements, the Institute requirement only causes “administrative burden,” and is “a white elephant, a dead subject,” he said. Instead, each course should maintain a requirement of a laboratory subject or capstone experience, he said.

The recommendations of the task force, planned for next spring, are not likely to escape controversy, Silbey said. Already, discussions have drawn criticism from some faculty, he said. “I went to the Physics Department, and they didn’t like it.” The recommendations “will not make everyone happy,” he said, but “it will be the right thing to do.”

While the task force plans to change the components of the science core, members would like to “maintain the rigor and basic unified experience of the current science core,” he said.

The driving forces behind proposed changes include the ideas that an MIT education should “ignite a passion for learning,” “introduce the fundamental modes of analysis,” and “increase the excitement and stimulation” of the first year, he said.

Changes that the task force might recommend to the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences requirement were less clear from Silbey’s presentation. The HASS requirement is undergoing “intense and ongoing review” by a subcommittee of the task force and the HASS Overview Committee, he said.

The main concern with the present HASS requirement is that HASS subjects are often second class citizens compared with science and engineering subjects, chosen to fit into a student’s schedule, he said. This attitude, often promulgated by freshman advisors, “denigrates the HASS requirement” and “immediately tells the student exactly the wrong message,” he said. He suggested that this could be avoided if freshman humanities subjects were be scheduled in one time block during which no other freshman classes would be held.

President Emeritus Paul E. Gray ’54 commented that the lack of importance of the HASS requirement “does not exist only in the freshman year.” The HASS requirement ends up as “what you can take that will fit and that will satisfy” the requirements, he said. Gray said he would like to see “more coherence” in the requirement; right now, he sees it as “a wonderful candy store” without a floorplan.

The task force is looking into ways to create a “more common experience” in the humanities, arts, and social sciences for freshman, he said, but which still maintains the differences between the disciplines. In particular, the committee hopes to simplify the HASS-D requirement, he said.

The task force intends to present their recommendations for faculty vote in the spring, Silbey said. He said he expects some, but not all, of the task force’s recommendations to be adopted.

Medical Task Force report given

Professor Paul L. Joskow gave a report on MIT’s recently concluded task force on medical care for the MIT community at the faculty meeting. The task force found that MIT’s present model of services best served the Institute’s interests, but that the quality of those services could be improved. One of several other models considered included outsourcing services, he said.

In the current model, Medical provides medical care and referral services to students, employees, and retirees, as well as providing alternatives for employees and retirees. The model is “in MIT’s best interests as long as MIT can devote the financial and managerial resources necessary to ensure that it continues to deliver high quality and cost effective care through the Medical Department,” according to a summary of the task force’s final report distributed at the meeting.

“There is an urgent need to add resources to the Medical Department’s budget quickly to improve access to care and to provide the time and resources required by caregivers to deliver high quality care,” according to the summary.

The task force was created at then-President Charles M. Vest’s request last September in response to concerns raised by the community, Joskow said. Among these concerns were a proposed 70 percent hike in the price of student extended health insurance, which was eventually lowered to a 60 percent increase, successive deep cuts to services such as obstetrics and gynecology, and concerns that MIT medical ran at excessive costs.

The data analyzed by the task force included the results of three surveys sent to members of the MIT community, all of which obtained over 50 percent response rates, Joskow said.

The task force recommended that within 60 days Medical present the administration with a short-term plan for adding clinical and other resources to address concerns about service reductions.

The 2003–2004 budget cuts went “too far,” he said, and Medical should make “judicious increases.” Wellness programs are not presently “up to the state of the art,” Joskow said, and small additional expenditures would improve services.

In total, the task force made over 40 recommendations, both short-term and long-term, to improve the current model.

Among them, the task force recommends “that the MIT Administration put a highly skilled professional in charge of ‘Medical Care for the MIT Community,’ with the responsibility to implement a health care strategy that advances MIT’s mission in a comprehensive and sustainable way,” according to the summary of the report.

In fiscal year 2004, MIT medical’s costs totaled $135.4 million, Joskow said, with net costs of $40.1 million after subscription of premiums, grants, and contracts.