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Freshman Experience, Project-Based Classes Tested

By Manisha Padi

Spring semester 2007 will see the introduction of several experimental Communication Intensive classes based on recommendations from the final report of The Task Force on the Undergraduate Education Commons released last year regarding possible changes in the future General Institute Requirements.

Included among the experimental courses are project-based classes and humanities courses that will be considered as possible freshman experience classes.

“Faculty are so excited about these classes,” said Elizabeth D. Cooper, the senior project manager at the Office of Faculty Support. “Many of them are teaching these as overtime.”

The creation of the new classes will be funded by the Alex and Brit d’Arbeloff Fund for Excellence in MIT Education. Project-based classes should allow students to “contribute to the definition of complex problems and to explore strategies for addressing them,” according to the d’Arbeloff Fund’s Web site.

Cooper said that students seem to embrace the new project-based classes as enrollment is around 20 students each, full for a typical Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences class.

Dennis M. Freeman, one of the professors teaching the new project-based Freshman Projects in Microscale Engineering for the Life Sciences (HST.410/6.07J) describes what students will be doing during the first few weeks of the new semester. “The first few weeks will involve students doing different hands-on projects,” Freeman said. “For example, the first day the students might make a pattern of small tubes on a plastic plate, and then the next we could use the plate to look at properties of liquid diffusion.”

“My class requires weekly progress reports and a final project that will easily cover the 20 pages [of writing] required for classification as a CI,” Freeman said.

According to Freeman, the class’s designers have been working with the MIT Teaching and Learning Lab to develop a set of assessments, including surveys, students interviews and focus groups, that will determine whether the class fulfilled the goals it initially set.

Freeman foresees a few potential problems for project-based classes.

“We will have to scale up to include many more students, and it would be impossible to do with the current faculty to student ratio, which is 3:20,” Freeman said. “Equipment and expense would be another factor. It’s unclear right now whether it would even be possible to run a class for up to 100 students — enrollment for the course is now limited to 20.”

The new HASS classes are meant to teach students to think in a new way about the subjects, said Bette K. Davis, director of the HASS Education Office.

According to Davis, much of what is new are the broad concepts addressed. “They are geared toward freshmen because they are meant to be exciting and innovative. The goal is to have students discussing concepts from class in their dorms.”

Shankar Raman ’86, an associate professor in Literature who is teaching the new class Art of the Probable (21L.017) agrees. “The central idea of this class is mathematical probability and how it has affected society since it was officially developed in the 17th century,” Raman said. “It will consider many classic texts by philosophers and novelists, but from the point of view of probability.”

According to Davis, there are no specifics plans to make many more HASS classes related to science and engineering at this time.

“Though the classes are somewhat tailored to MIT students, who are very intelligent and have great problem solving skills, they are also designed to be ‘blockbuster’ classes that would be the envy of any university, technical or non-technical,” said Meg Jacobs, an associate Professor of History who is designing 21H.001, or How to Stage a Revolution, to be offered in Fall 2007.

A major student complaint regarding the task force recommendations on future GIRs was that designating certain HASS classes exclusively for freshmen would severely limit choices, according to Davis.

“The idea of choice is relative here,” said Raman. “Though theoretically students can choose between 50 or 60 HASS-Ds, they end up being limited to 10 or 15 based on scheduling conflicts. If the task force recommendations are voted in and these experimental classes are added to the list of freshman experience … classes, there would be a separate time blocked out in all freshman schedules for HASS classes. That way, they would still be able to choose between 15 or 16 offerings.”

The HASS classes are also working with the TLL at MIT to create class evaluations.

More information about the experimental classes can be found at