Kip Hodges thinks one way to help freshmen get turned on about learning the fundamentals of engineering and science is to encourage them to spend some time building castles in the air. In the new freshman subject "Solving Complex Problems" (12.000), he challenges them with a larger-than-life mission: trying to solve a problem that may have no viable solution.
"Freshmen come to MIT enthusiastic about science and engineering. They want to become part of the research enterprise that is MIT. But when they get here, most of the subjects they take focus on the fundamentals they need to do high-quality research. That's important, but it means that students can sometimes lose the broader perspective," said Hodges, a professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences who served as the dean for undergraduate curriculum from 1997-2000.
"We've taken them to a candy store and told them, 'You have to take something from each of the major food groups now; we'll give you candy later.' The notion behind 12.000 is to let them taste a bit of the candy right from the start," he said.
In "Solving Complex Problems," sponsored by the Committee on the Undergraduate Program and supported by the d'Arbeloff Fund for Educational Excellence, this year's mission (code-named "the Atlantis Projects") was to design a permanent, manned, underwater research laboratory and provide a detailed research plan for the first six months of its operation.
Students were divided into two sections. One was assigned to design a lab to be placed at the bottom of the central Indian Ocean near a newly discovered hydrothermal vent system named for the late MIT Professor John Edmond. The other group was instructed to design a lab for a location in the Mesoamerican barrier reef off the coast of Belize.
Each project offered a distinct set of challenges. The hydrothermal vent station would have to be built at a depth of more than 2,000 meters, posing difficulties relating to water pressure and transporting materials and people. The other station in shallower water on the reef would be more accessible, but because of the site's fragile ecosystem, the designers had to be careful not to destroy the system they were aiming to study.
"Most first-year subjects present students with problems for which there is a correct solution," said Hodges. "I try to give them a problem so complicated that there is no single answer, and one that requires transdisciplinary thinking to have any hope of a solution."
The designs developed by the freshmen may or may not be viable from engineering or scientific perspectives, because the students haven't yet taken even the introductory courses in their fields. But they do come up with solutions that address some of the problems involved in a complicated undertaking such as an underwater lab: what the habitat looks like, the submersibles needed for transportation, what experiments they'll run and the necessary apparatus, questions about safety and emergency procedures, etc. Solutions can be seen on the subject web site.
"I'm unbelievably impressed at what they can do as freshmen," said Hodges. "That's not to say they're ready to go out and build an underwater lab, but they've thought about the problems. And when they take their introductory mechanical engineering course, for example, they'll learn something that will click: 'If I'd just known that last year when I was working on that design...' Hopefully, a better sense of the utility of the concepts they encounter in the introductory subjects will make them more aggressive learners."
MENTORS PLAY ROLE
Students in each section are divided into 10 teams and each team is assigned one design aspect of the problem such as biological experiments, geological experiments, unmanned submersibles and fundraising. Each team is mentored by an upperclassman and one or more alumni with professional experience in the field, ranging from an admiral who helped design a class of submarines to an electrical engineering alumnus. Some mentors live nearby and others are far away. Contact with their student teams can be in person, by e-mail or even by conference calls.
Last year, several veterans of the Apollo program helped the students design a mission to Mars to look for signs of life. Next year's topic is not yet finalized; Hodges said he's open to suggestions.
This semester's enrollment was 62, up from 50 in 2001, the first year of 12.000's existence. The subject, which is being offered for a five-year experimental period, will be evaluated as a possible model for other freshman subjects.
"It's too early to tell how valuable this approach to learning might be for an entire freshman class, but the results of the experiment thus far suggest that the students who take 12.000 really enjoy the challenge," said Hodges. "I'd like to see more such opportunities made available to them."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 19, 2001.