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Better use of technology will enhance undergraduate education, a collaborative living community for MIT faculty will soon become a reality, and interdisciplinary research is an increasingly popular focus, said the May/June 2011 Faculty Newsletter. The newsletter reported on issues ranging from the experimental First-Year Focus program to broad goals of the faculty. Innovation and collaboration in teaching, learning, and research was a recurring theme.

First-Year Focus experiment continues

The School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences experimented with the First-Year Focus (FYF) program to create broadly focused classes — primarily for freshmen — that investigated big-picture topics and stressed critical thinking skills.

Though the Subcommittee on the HASS Requirement (SHR) did not recommend making the FYF program part of the General Institute Requirements at this time, SHR did suggest expanding HASS offerings that focus on analytical, interdisciplinary thinking.

SHR hopes the pilot program of 10 FYF subjects can be increased to 15 subjects that will accommodate about 650 students annually. Popular points of the program were the interdisciplinary nature of the classes, which invites the use of innovative teaching methods. Student-faculty interaction is also a key point of the classes.

To encourage undergraduates of all class years — not just freshmen — to take these courses, SHR recommended renaming the program “HASS Exploration.”

MIT housing community takes shape

A push to create a living group of MIT community members of all ages has made significant progress. The building at 303 Third St. in Cambridge, near Kendall, is finally being opened for residents to move in. The community hopes to foster mentoring across all generations of MIT faculty and help to integrate new faculty and staff into campus, along with providing support for recent graduates.

This project was started in 2003, and the University Residential Communities (URC) group was formed in 2004 to spearhead the campaign. The agreement for the site on Third Street was reached with the New York Extell Corporation in 2007, and construction and the initial sales of units followed shortly thereafter.

URC battled a weakening housing market and potential legislative changes to the nature of residential cooperatives. Extell was bought out by EQR of Chicago, a firm with little interest in continuing the project. EQR halted the sale of units and encouraged those who had already bought units to cancel the sale, which left URC extremely disappointed.

After two years of navigating the legal system, a judge instructed EQR to proceed with sales. Purchases of units are again being made, and the new residents of 303 Third St. look forward to creating a unique, supportive community soon.

Technology and unique educational opportunities

Since fall 2010, the MIT Council of Educational Technology (MITCET) has been developing strategies to increase experience-based learning and effective technology use in education. MITCET developed a number of suggestions that focus on flexible educational programs and technology.

This flexibility is most emphasized in redefining the concept of a semester-based system. Utilizing modules, or flexible durations of courses, could allow entrepreneurial project classes, service projects, brief internships, and research activity to take place more organically during the academic term, instead of being relegated to the Independent Activities Period during the month of January. Such opportunities could greatly enhance the education of MIT students by providing hands-on experiences.

Incorporating technology — like online course materials — into traditional classes could help these flexible options become a reality. If students could access course materials while abroad or working on a project full-time, constraints of the academic calendar could be minimized. Online resources could also help those without prior experience in a subject to get up to speed on the material being covered in class.

A few initiatives to experiment in these areas will be funded with the hope of investigating how students benefit from module-based schedules and if such changes will be viable on a larger scale and in the scope of the visions of individual departments.

Faculty want flexibility, guidance

Members of the Faculty Policy Committee spoke with faculty from various departments in more personal settings this term to tease out important goals for the future. Common goals were centered around providing faculty with resources to pursue the research and teaching styles they are interested in conducting and thinking of ways to improve the lives of members of the academic community throughout their careers.

Faculty are interested in collaborating with members of other departments, but feel that they often lack the space, funding, and equipment for novel research and teaching ventures. Suggestions to improve classrooms emphasized allowing students to work together, but not gearing facilities too much toward any one style of teaching; despite new technology options, chalkboards still hold a special place in the arsenal of the MIT professor.

Faculty are also interested in exploring fields outside their primary specialty and researching areas that may not have an immediate application; these two desires can make securing funding difficult, so many people suggested better communication with the media and government to increase awareness of the importance of these tasks.

Many suggestions were made to address issues at specific points in the lives of faculty. There is a strong desire for more childcare options for young faculty. Those in the middle of their careers are sometimes interested in exploring other areas of researching, but need resources like funding and physical space and equipment to do so. Faculty approaching retirement are often interested in slowly decreasing their research involvement by working part-time and becoming involved in other activities, like traveling to local schools to speak to young students.