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This coming fall, students in Course 2 (Mechanical Engineering) will see the introduction of a new Course 2-A curriculum, the modified, more flexible version of the traditional Course 2 track. Incoming sophomores, the class of 2015, will have their choice between the current 2-A curriculum and this new one, while students from the class of 2016 on will go into the new curriculum. For more information, see The Tech’s previous coverage of the announcement of the new program in April Edward E. Burnell ’12, a Course 2 senior, sat down with Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Course 2-A program coordinator Annette Hosoi, to ask about the proposed changes.

Edward Burnell: Why is there a new 2-A curriculum?

Annette Hosoi: When 2-A was created in 1934, there were only a few students in the program. With only six to seven students per year, we didn’t have the resources to offer a separate core tailored to the needs of the 2-A students, so the old 2-A core was by necessity tied to existing Course 2 offerings. Now that 2-A is almost the same size as Course 2, we have a new opportunity to design a unique core to serve the needs of our growing 2-A population. In designing the new core, we felt that the jewel in the crown of 2-A is the concentration. So one of our primary goals in designing the new core was to create a program that will enable students to excel in any concentration they choose.

EB: Is the new curriculum accredited?

AH: The new 2-A is accredited. One of the things we’ve learned is that accreditation is important to the students: as soon as 2-A was accredited in 2002, enrollment took off. And not only that, we started to see more and more rigorous programs. There is a cohort of students coming out of the 2-A program who are demonstrating aptitude, not only in traditional mechanical engineering fields, but in specialized areas like energy or robotics. I think these skills and the success of our graduates sells the degree more than anything we could possibly do.

The other thing that the accreditation agency told us, the last time they were here was, “You know, you could accredit 2-A as a mechanical engineering degree if you wanted,” and I think the consensus was that we didn’t want that, that 2-A is something special.

EB: You mentioned that the fraction of 2-A students taking it as a ‘course of least resistance’ is very small, but that image is a huge concern among some 2 and 2-A students.

AH: This is actually a very interesting cultural shift. People complain about going through the accreditation process, because it’s a pain in the neck; but this is a case where I think it’s done something really valuable. When the program became accredited, there were a number of strict guidelines put in place regarding what is allowed in the program. I think we saw a shift not only in the number of students, but also in the culture of students who were taking Course 2-A. Very few of this new cohort of students are taking the easy way out. The most popular track is robotics, which is a blend of 2 and 6. These are people who want to take both Course 2 and Course 6, and it’s hard to argue that that’s an easy way through MIT. I sit down and talk with each of the 2-A students, and it is a small, small minority who are doing it because they’re in trouble with their Course 2 classes. There will always going to be some, but it’s a small percentage.

EB: How do employers view the 2-A degree?

AH: We’ve polled our alumni and we have not seen any difference in opportunity or ability between 2 and 2-A alumni.

EB: How long have you been working on the new curriculum? It seems very sudden, but surely something like this doesn’t come about so suddenly.

AH: (laughs) It’s pretty sudden. The last curriculum reform we did took years; with this one, we started thinking about it seriously last summer, which is an extremely short time to roll this out. But the reason it went through so quickly was that, well, we looked at the program, and recognized that the growth of 2-A has given us a real opportunity that we’ve never had before. Now that half of our student population — it’s actually more than half in the entering sophomore class — is in 2-A, we have the ability to split our resources, to put some in 2, and some in 2-A. There was a lot of support (both among the the students and the faculty) and I think that’s why the proposed curriculum went through so quickly. It was a well defined challenge with well defined constraints, and we said “We think we can design something that’s better than what we have, so let’s do it.”

EB: How did you start designing the new curriculum?

AH: The two things we heard from the students were “Let us build right out of the gates, and give us some kind of programming experience that we can use in our upper-level courses.” Both of those are in the new curriculum: we’ve given you the design classes and the Matlab classes early.

EB: And the 6 unit classes?

AH: As far as 6-unit vs. 12-unit classes, there are trade-offs on both sides. There are some classes where it’s obvious that you need 12 units; like the capstone: for 2.009, you need 12 units. For 2.671, you need 12 units. But there are other places where it makes more sense to go to a 6-unit structure.

For example, we discussed the key topics that must be in the program; we talked to faculty, alumni, and students to find out what they wanted, and everyone wanted us to add statistics and linear algebra. On the other hand, there are serious constraints on the number of units we can require; obviously we can’t grow the program indefinitely. The new core has actually shrunk by 3 units: we were very strict with ourselves on that constraint.

Having those constraints forced us to think very carefully about what are the most important concepts we teach; this was actually a very good (and ongoing) exercise for the faculty. We found that, to hit all of the key topics, you can’t do it if your granularity is 12 units. So the natural next step is explore the possibility of 6 unit topics. Now, having said that, a lot of the new courses can be thought of in terms of 12 units; for example, in mechanics, you take 2.01, and then you either go into 2.02a or 2.02b. So, you should think of that as a 12-unit sequence with a branch in the middle. Note: it’s not required to take 2.02a or b in the same term as 2.01.]

In fact, all of the 6-unit classes we’ve proposed, if they’re standard lecture-and-lab classes, are half term. We’ve done that deliberately to try to constrain the faculty — we (the faculty) are very exuberant, and we all want to put lots of stuff in our classes, and if you give us the whole semester to do it, we’re not going to be able to restrain ourselves to six units of material. So all of the new lecture classes are half term classes. The two exceptions are the build classes, the new design class and electronics class, which extend over the entire term. This was done both for logistical reasons and to give students more time to iterate on their projects.

EB: How will students be affected by all these 6-unit classes?

AH: One of the things that I’m very excited about — and this wasn’t even on my mind when we started doing this — is that when I started laying out the schedules, I realized this new format gives you a lot of flexibility regarding time management, which is especially important in majors like Course 2 and 2-A which have a lot of build classes. Those build classes, no matter how you run them, are going to take up a lot of time at the end of the semester. The six unit classes give you the opportunity to frontload the semester, which I think is a good thing; I think this will help students spread their effort more uniformly across the semester.

The other thing that’s exciting about the new format is that it meshes beautifully with many of the ideas coming from the Dean’s office in the School of Engineering about a “Junior semester anywhere.” They’re encouraging departments to think about ways to allow students to take advantage of opportunities that broaden their educational experience in other places. For example, whenever I teach 2.001 or 2.006, there are always some students who are involved in the solar car team, who go to Australia for a few weeks. The question is, how can we make it so that going away for, say, two weeks to participate in these extraordinary opportunities, does not hose your semester? These are exactly the types of projects we want our students to be doing; we want you to be building and innovating; but we don’t want you to blow off a semester.

These 6-unit chunks, will make it much easier to balance your semester if you know you’re going to have an opportunity to, say, do an internship in China, or to go and build bicycles in Italy. The School of Engineering is promoting these types of approaches, and I think the new 2-A core fits in nicely with those ideas. I suspect that new ways of offering our courses will be something that will become more widespread throughout MIT. These might not be in the form of 6-unit chunks; there are lots of other ways, like MITx: 6.002, is a perfect example of a format that allows you to go somewhere else while taking the class. If you’re away for three weeks that’s okay. I think more and more departments are starting to think about ways to allow you to take advantage of these unique opportunities that are an important part of your MIT education.

EB: How can students get their questions about the new curriculum answered?

AH: Besides the information posted on the blog, we’re going to start a student peer advisory group. The ASME student chapter has put together a group of upperclassmen who will meet with us once a month or so, who can tell us “Here are all of the questions I’ve been hearing,” and we can give them answers to propagate back to the the general student population. I think that’s one way to get answers back to you quickly.

But one thing to bear in mind is that each 2-A curriculum is a very individual program, so I think that it’s important for the students to meet individually with faculty advisors, and we’re working on ways to improve that connection, to make sure that everybody gets their questions answered.

One of the nice things about rolling out a new curriculum is that it’s a good time to evaluate where we are, and what we could be doing better. I think this is a time when people are very receptive to changing structures, so it’s a good time, if you have suggestions on how to do things differently, to tell us.