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Task Force Suggests Curriculum Reform

By Angeline Wang
NEWS EDITOR

The final report of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons, released Friday, identifies a set of goals for the education of MIT undergraduates, makes recommendations on possible changes to the core curriculum and infrastructure of undergraduate education, and emphasizes the importance of international experiences.

The committee distilled MIT’s educational mission into a series of four goals that apply to all undergraduates, emphasizing a broad understanding of science and technology, as well as research. (See page 15 for complete goals and recommendations.)

The recommendations include proposed changes to the General Institute Requirements, ways for study abroad programs and international study to be more accessible to students, and improvements in diversity, advising, scheduling, and orientation, as well as “first-year coherence and integrity.”

“The report acknowledges that the number of areas of scientific knowledge of which our students should be aware has grown in the last fifty years,” President Susan Hockfield said in a statement Friday. “Its recommendations also include a more clearly articulated set of foundational elements in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.”

The report further points to “an intellectually richer first-year experience,” Hockfield said.

A presentation of the report will be made at the faculty meeting tomorrow at 3:30 p.m. in 32-123.

The faculty will decide which recommendations are important. The job of refining the recommendations and making specific proposals to the faculty for adoption will then fall to a subcommittee of the Committee on the Undergraduate Program, Dean for Undergraduate Education Daniel E. Hastings said at last night’s Undergraduate Association Senate meeting.

A new student committee, made up of members of the Student Advisory Committee and the Student Committee on Educational Policy that provided input to the task force and other students, plans to gather undergraduate input and compile a written response to the report over the Independent Activities Period, according to Aron Walker ’07, a student member of the task force.

The committee will gather input from students on the report via online forums that will be up later this week, a town hall meeting held Sunday afternoon, and a survey that will begin next week and run for about two weeks, Walker said.

Changes to GIRs proposed

The report recommends several changes to the GIRs that were first presented to the MIT community in May.

The proposed Science, Math, and Engineering portion of the GIR will replace the current science core, restrictive electives in science and technology, and the laboratory requirement and will provide more flexibility in course selection for students. (See page 15 for more details.) Three courses — Calculus I and II and Physics I — would remain as strict requirements.

In addition to these three subjects, students would be required to take one subject from each of five out of six categories: math, physical sciences, chemistry, life sciences, computation and engineering, and project-based first-year experiences.

The committee recommends no more than three subjects for each of the categories, except for project-based experiences.

One of the criticisms of the new SME requirements raised at last night’s UA Senate meeting is that, as proposed, students could potentially miss out on an entire field of study, such as biology or chemistry.

Advanced Placement credit, the committee concluded, should not be used to satisfy GIRs, with the exception of calculus. Students should still be able to test out of classes through departmental Advanced Standing Exams, the report states.

“We like to think of AP classes as good college preparation,” Enders said during the UA Senate meeting. “AP likes to think of it as a way to get through school faster.”

The proposed HASS requirement would have two major phases, a foundational phase that would be completed within the first two years and a concentration phase. The foundational phase would include one class from each of three categories — humanities, arts, and social sciences — one of which would be a freshman experience class that would tackle a “big idea” like poverty, globalization, or human nature.

The foundational phase of the HASS requirement should “expose students to different modes of analysis,” Walker said. The CI-H portion of the communication requirement would be integrated into the foundational courses.

According to Enders, the faculty is concerned with the perception among students that HASS classes are “throwaway” subjects that are chosen based on whether they fit into a student’s course schedule.

The addition of the foundational requirement elevates the prominence of the HASS subjects, Enders said. The proposed freshman common experience HASS classes would also give students a common experience that allows them to converse about their humanities classes.

The concept of the first-year program experience has drawn criticism from students.

“I cannot think of any other part of the core that has gotten more negative feedback,” UA Senator from East Campus Jessica H. Lowell ’07 said during the Senate meeting last night. “Students really value the fact that people can choose which HASS class they can take. They like the fact that they are in classes with upperclassmen. They don’t understand why the report supports the view that freshmen would only talk to other freshmen about their classes.”

Other senators pointed out that the proposed changes make the HASS requirement less flexible. One student pointed out that freshman year schedules are “very rigidified” and HASS classes are the only opportunity for freshmen to make choices.

Dean of Science Robert J. Silbey, chair of the task force, said that any changes to the GIR would take at least 18 months of deliberation by the faculty and experimentation with pilot classes.

Five pilot project-based subjects and three freshmen experience HASS subjects are under development and will be offered in the coming semesters, according to Margaret S. Enders, associate dean of faculty. Currently, a project-based seminar is being offered as a model for developing future courses. (See http://web.mit.edu/darbeloff/current.htm for more details.) The creation of these classes is being funded by the d’Arbeloff Fund for Excellence in Education.

Report stresses int’l experiences

In addition to the changes to the GIRs, the committee also emphasized the importance of international experiences in the undergraduate education, as “being able to understand and to work with people from diverse nations and cultures are indispensable abilities that will characterize successful leaders in the coming century.”

The recommendations focus on bolstering current MIT study-abroad programs, such as MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives and the Cambridge-MIT Exchange, and encouraging departments to cultivate relationships with other universities.

“The task force felt strongly that MIT students should be thinking about going abroad,” Silbey said.

Silbey acknowledged that studying abroad posed unique problems for engineering students. According to the report, there is a “lack of a study-abroad tradition among engineering students nationally.” Thus, opportunities must be consistent with MIT’s culture and educational practices.

Study-abroad programs “should also have some of the MIT rigor in them,” Silbey said.

The report states that students who want to study abroad should be able to “without financial or academic penalty.” Students should still be able to graduate in four years even after going abroad.

Miscellaneous recommendations

Advising, resources, diversity, first-year coherence and integrity, and other aspects of the educational commons were also touched on in the report.

“The task force recognized that the first year was not viewed as a cohesive experience,” Walker said. Changes should be made to coordinate first-year subjects, possibly by making sure exams do not fall on the same day, for example.

Part of making the first-year experience more cohesive would be to put the “intellectual goals” of orientation first.

UA Senator from Burton-Conner Ali S. Wyne ’08 (also a Tech opinion columnist) brought up a concern about the status of orientation and Residence Exploration. While the faculty believes that orientation should be more about exploring academic options, as Enders said, some students believe that orientation is one of the only opportunities for students to explore housing options.

According to the report, maintaining a diverse student body should be of “paramount importance.” New subjects created “should address directly the relationship between the subject design and the diversity goals of the Institute,” the report states.

While Silbey agreed that goals such as the one above were “vague,” the inclusion of these recommendations clearly shows how much MIT emphasizes diversity.

One other general suggestion was to eliminate the additional unit requirements that are currently required to complete two undergraduate degrees. Instead, students could complete a double major by satisfying the requirements of both majors, as well as the GIRs, but no additional units.

The report is available at http://web.mit.edu/committees/edcommons/
documents/task_force_report.html.