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Proposed Revisions to GIRs Are Unveiled

Kelley Rivoire

At a town meeting Wednesday, the MIT community heard a status report from the faculty task force on MIT’s educational mission.

The committee proposed several tweaks to the General Institute Requirements, including eliminating the Institute Laboratory requirement. But the basic structure of the MIT-wide undergraduate requirements won’t change much.

“Increasing freshman enthusiasm and motivation is an important goal,” said Dean Robert J. Silbey, the committee’s chairman.

“The freshman motivation and enthusiasm declines a lot from when they come in to Thanksgiving break,” he said. “They come to MIT wanting to rule the world, change the world.”

The committee’s proposed changes, which are to be finalized this fall, will most significantly affect the current science core. Only Calculus I and II, along with Physics I, would remain as strict requirements, half the six mandatory subjects in the current science core.

In addition to these three subjects, the newly-christened “Science-Math-Engineering core” would require one subject from five of six categories: Math, Physical Sciences, Chemistry, Life Science, Computation and Engineering, and a project-based freshman experience, with the latter two making their first appearance in the core subjects. Each category would offer a few subjects from which freshmen could choose.

Additionally, the Institute laboratory currently required would be subsumed into departmental programs, as would restricted electives in science and technology.

The proposed changes to the HASS requirement quite closely to the current model. The only major departure to the eight-subject requirement would be a freshman experience class, selected from a range of about 10 to 16 classes, that would tackle a “big idea” like poverty, globalization, human nature, revolutions, or even love, Silbey said.

Three pilot freshman experience HASS classes, such as “How to Stage a Revolution,” in addition to six science and engineering project-based experiences, two of which are related to energy, are already under development. (See for more details.)

New core’s goal is ‘flexibility’

The proposed science-math-engineering core aims to offer students some additional flexibility by allowing them to pick one subject out of several from five of six categories, rather than stipulating specific requirements.

Some students at Wednesday’s forum worried that in the proposed model, their choice of subjects as freshmen would restrict their opportunities as upperclassmen, while others feared that the core might lose cohesiveness.

Flexibility can sometimes indicate an attitude of “we don’t know what you should be learning,” said physics major Michelle Zimmermann ’07.

“Flexibility sounds good, but by increasing flexibility in the core, you may actually be decreasing flexibility in the long-run,” said Jessica H. Lowell ’07, a Brain and Cognitive Sciences major who said she needed until midway through her sophomore year to select her major. “I’m glad that I had the foundational classes in chemistry, physics, and biology, and math,” she said, concluding that “there’s a reason at a tech school for a science core to be more rigid.” Lowell is also the outgoing vice president of the Undergraduate Association.

“There will be a tightening of the possibilities for students,” Silbey acknowledged, especially in departments requiring many of the GIR subjects, but he said the tradeoff was a worthwhile one.

The proposed project-based GIR, which Silbey said might resemble current subjects like 12.000 (Solving Complex Problems and 16.00 (Introduction to Aerospace and Design), drew praise.

The new option would “get the manus back into mens et manus,” MIT’s motto, said Edward J. Moriarty ’76, a technical instructor at the Edgerton Center, which houses a student machine shop.

Freshman HASS classes proposed

The proposed freshman common experience HASS classes, which freshmen would take in one of their first two terms, are intended to raise the prominence and importance of HASS subjects and give students a common experience that allows them to converse about their humanities classes, as well as their core science and engineering classes.

“We want to have a freshman experience in HASS that will be full of energy and concentrate on big ideas and fundamental knowledge,” said Silbey.

To signify the importance of HASS, the classes would be offered in a time block during which no other freshmen classes could be held, a change Silbey deemed a “radical recommendation,” that would also eliminate scheduling constraints that might otherwise affect selection of HASS classes.

All too often, advisors tell their freshmen advisees only to “find yourself a Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences subject on this list of 75 that you’ll enjoy and that fits into your schedule,” Silbey said.

With the addition of the freshman experience subject, the current three-subject HASS distribution requirement (which would drop the name HASS-D), would be reduced to “foundational” subjects from two of three categories: Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. A three to four-subject HASS concentration would remain a requirement, which Silbey said would be better-defined and more demanding than at present.

The Communication Intensive requirement for HASS classes will remain, said Fitzgerald, and the freshman experience subject would serve as one of two required CI-H subjects.

Few students jumped to support the common experience subjects. Lowell called the idea “patronizing” and “antithetical to the idea that MIT students should be allowed to decide these things for themselves.”

Sarah C. Hopp ’08, a double major in Courses VII and IX, worried that restricting HASS subjects in the freshman year might put students who need specific HASS classes for their majors at a disadvantage.

“It is a little bit controversial to try to squish down to 16 [Freshmen Experience] classes the huge variety of [HASS] classes that incoming freshman now have,” said Deborah K. Fitzgerald, chair of the subcommittee that helped construct the new HASS requirement. Freshman feel overwhelmed or intimidated by the current choice of over 100 HASS classes that “all look pretty much the same,” she said. Reducing the number of open classes provides a way to “offer some guidance to students.”

Study abroad to be encouraged

In addition to the changes to the GIRs, the committee is also likely to make more general recommendations about undergraduate education at the Institute, Silbey said. Among these would be pushing to make international experiences such as study abroad easier, improving advising and mentoring, and recommending the replacement of double degrees with double majors, which would have fewer unit requirements.

Currently, “departments are not very encouraging” of study abroad programs, leading some to fear that “by leaving the Institute, they may fall behind,” said Christopher A. Suarez ’06, a student serving on the committee.

Studying abroad can be a “really eye-opening and maybe life-changing” experience, Silbey said. “Why would we not give our students that opportunity if we can figure out how to do it keeping the rigor of the MIT undergraduate education?”

A few questioned the new emphasis on international experiences, however. “I applied to MIT because I wanted an MIT education, not because I wanted to be in Europe,” Zimmermann said, while Lowell questioned the potential impact an exodus of undergraduates studying abroad might have on communities of students.

The committee also hopes to address the quality of undergraduate advising, which has long been a concern at the Institute and was the subject of a faculty committee report last year. Advising “needs to be fixed, improved,” according to Silbey.

“We are really concerned that there’s been a culture at MIT where advising is a rubber stamp,” Suarez said.

What tweaks these recommendations may undergo before they are finalized this fall, and whether the faculty will approve them, remains to be seen. Between now and then, faculty and students on the task force will solicit input by e-mail and discussion forums. The task force members can be reached by e-mail at