Dennis Freeman PhD ’86, Professor of Electrical Engineering and the Course 6 undergraduate officer, has been appointed MIT’s next Dean for Undergraduate Education (DUE), Chancellor Eric Grimson PhD ’80 wrote in an email to the MIT community last Thursday. Freeman will step into the position on July 1, succeeding Daniel E. Hastings PhD ’80, Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Engineering Systems, who has served as DUE since 2006.
Following Hastings’ Jan. 8 announcement that he would be stepping down, a search committee was formed with Graham C. Walker as the chair. The committee consisted of eight other faculty members, three students, and senior associated dean Elizabeth Reed. The committee was charged with recommending three to five candidates to Grimson, who made the final choice.
“Denny will begin his time as Dean at a significant moment in shaping the future of MIT’s model of residential education,” wrote Grimson. Freeman will work with the Task Force on the Future of MIT Education to evaluate MIT’s educational model, and with “colleagues in DUE and across the Institute to improve student advising.”
A MacVicar Faculty Fellow since 2006, Freeman has had extensive experience with undergraduate education at MIT. He has previously served as the Course 6 undergraduate officer and chaired the Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP), as well as serving on a number of other educational committees.
“His contributions to the educational mission of EECS have been substantial,” wrote search committee member Collin M. Stultz, Associate Professor of Health Sciences and Technology, in an email to The Tech. “He cares deeply about undergraduate education, and I am confident that he will make long-lasting and significant contributions to the overall mission of MIT.”
“He really impressed us with his ideas about the challenges and opportunities that we face in [undergraduate] education,” wrote Stephen C. Graves, Professor of Management Science, also on the search committee, to The Tech. “And he has a truly wonderful interpersonal style that will work effectively with all of the constituencies of the DUE office.”
Student advisory groups
Over the years, Freeman has found that getting “continuous input from student advisory groups” has been “very effective in Course 6.” As an example, he cites the Super UROP program, in which students commit to a full year of research with their chosen lab or group, as well as two semesters of the six-unit 6.UAR (Preparation for Undergraduate Research) class, which focuses on choosing and developing a research subject, industry best practices, and presentation skills, among other topics.
“UROP is one of the best things that we do,” said Freeman. To further channel that success, Freeman and Anantha P. Chandrakasan, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Course 6 department head, spent almost a year developing the Super UROP, which launched in Fall 2012.
That process showed him the importance of getting student input. Their initial idea for the program was rooted in academia — “People would come out of [the program] having written a paper. That appealed to us, because that’s what we did” — but when they brought the idea to a student advisory group, the focus changed to something “more attuned to what the students saw to be an attractive outcome.”
“The students were much more interested in things that would be good to show on their resume, make them more attractive to Google or whoever they were trying to be hired by,” said Freeman. “So we adjusted the goal. It became more project-based.”
In that vein, Freeman plans to begin addressing future changes by simply talking to students and faculty members.
With MIT’s role in the rapidly growing sphere of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), two concerns have been repeatedly brought up on campus: How can MITx benefit residential education, and how will MIT differentiate between these MOOCs and residential education?
“One of my goals — and it’s shared by all the upper administration — is to make sure MITx helps the residential students,” said Freeman. Although as DUE he will not be leading MITx, he plans to work with Sanjay Sarma, MIT’s first director of digital learning, to reach that goal.
Having taught 6.01 (Introduction to EECS I) for many years, Freeman is optimistic about making MITx beneficial to on-campus education. “We’ve used MITx-like technology [in 6.01] from the beginning,” he said. “That was always just a residential component.”
Adapting the standard lecture teaching format to directly engage students is something that 6.01 has done for years, and Freeman believes the interactive component of education expands beyond technology to a community of residential students.
For example, this past academic year’s Super UROP included a seminar series that brought together all 77 participants. “Rather than being isolated in labs across campus, they got to know each other,” said Freeman. “They presented their stuff to each other, they had an automatic audience, they had automatic critics. It generated a sense of community that’s enormously helpful.”
Freeman will also be spearheading the implementation of a motion to assign a faculty advisor to every freshman. The motion, passed at the May faculty meeting, is meant to foster greater interaction between the faculty and undergraduates.
“I’m extremely interested in the first few years [of the undergraduate program]. They’re the formative years,” said Freeman. “In the first year that someone comes here, that’s when we have the biggest opportunity to make a favorable impression and to do something good.”
And over all of this, there’s a larger force driving the scramble to evaluate MIT’s educational model: “The biggest challenge [in education] now is anticipating how to keep ahead of the speed at which the world is changing,” said Freeman.
Anthony Yu contributed reporting.