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MacVicar Fellows Selected

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: The March 3 article “MacVicar Fellows Selected” incorrectly identified Professor Samuel A. Bowring’s department. It is Course 12 (Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences), not Course 7 (Biology).

By Curt Fischer

This year’s three recipients of the MacVicar Faculty Fellowship, which honors outstanding undergraduate teaching at MIT, share a common commitment to laboratory and project-based learning, and advocate a changes in the core curriculum to increase hand-on experience. The MacVicar fellowship, begun in 1992 to commemorate Margaret MacVicar, MIT’s first dean for undergraduate education and founder of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. It provides Fellows with $100,000 over a 10 year period for the development of undergraduate education at MIT.

Professor Leslie K. Norford, Course 4 (Architecture), said that most of his interactions with undergraduates have occurred “in the lab.” He has spent years developing and teaching his laboratory course, 4.411, Building Technology Laboratory, and said that building experience has been key to his success as a teacher — the first time he taught it, he said, no one would have said he was a good teacher. Now, students are helping to design AIDS clinics in Zambia and commend his teaching efforts.

Course VI (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science) Associate Professor Dennis M. Freeman PhD ’86 has only been on the faculty for ten years, but has “been at MIT forever” as a research scientist. He credited his longtime experience supervising graduate student thesis work with giving him a head start in teaching.

Since becoming faculty ten years ago, Freeman has been involved in teaching 6.021, Quantitative Physiology, a course where two projects, one of which is primarily experimental, now constitute the bulk of the workload.

Samuel A. Bowring, professor in Course 7 (Biology), who rounded out this year’s class of MacVicar fellows, also provided copious hands-on experience for his undergraduates — for the last several years, Bowring has co-organized an environmental earth science field trip to the American southwest during the Independent Activities Period.

“There is nothing that can compare to hiking up a volcano and discussing the thermodynamics of melting the mantle or seeing active faults in the field,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Projects help students learn

Both Freeman and Norford contrasted project- and case study-based learning to teaching through problem sets alone. Freeman said MIT has “too much emphasis on homeworks — I think they’re a little depressing.” In his experience, he said, only the more gifted students benefit from doing lots of problems sets, since many students get discouraged by them.

Incorporating projects into 6.021 and his other courses was a success, said Freeman, because “as a result of the projects, every student knows what’s going on.”

Norford praised MIT’s undergraduate teaching system, saying that “at any university there are some who feel they are too busy to get involved teaching undergrads,” but “on average, there is more devotion to undergraduate education here than at other places. One of the strengths is the common core, and the balance within it. It provides building blocks useful to be able to touch on later.”

Nonetheless, Norford, Bowring, and Freeman all said that MIT’s core curriculum needs revision. Norford, in advocating change, said that “more emphasis on project-based education” would improve the core. Freeman agreed, naming 2.000; How and Why Machines Work, 12.000; Solving Complex Problems, and 16.00; Introduction to Aerospace and Design, as enormously successful programs for involving freshmen in project-based learning. “We’d like more students to have those options” he said.

Whether incorporating projects into the freshman year should be optional or mandatory is still being decided, said Freeman. Last year, Dean of Science Robert J. Silbey, head of the Task Force on MIT’s Undergraduate Educational Commons, reported that mandatory project-based courses will likely be added to the freshman curriculum.

Freeman, Norford, and Bowring were selected from a field of 11 nominees based on the strength of recommendation letters from their department heads as well as many of their former students.

Final decisions are made by a faculty committee which includes several MacVicar Fellows. Choosing this year’s winners was “pretty easy,” said Joanne Straggas, an administrator with knowledge of the committee’s decision-making process.

Both Freeman and Norford plan to use their funds to develop courses for freshman; Freeman recently received a d’Arbeloff grant to develop freshman projects in microscale engineering for the life sciences, and plans to apply his annual $10,000 MacVicar award to similar projects. Norford, in turn, is planning a freshman-level physics of energy course, and said he hopes to get d’Arbeloff support as well.