The need for greater writing and speaking skills for undergraduates, and for a professional master's degree in geoscience, were the main topics discussed at the year's first faculty meeting last week.
The writing requirement needs to be integrated into the curriculum over the entire four-year undergraduate program in order to give MIT students the writing and speaking skills they will need in the work place, according to the Committee on the Writing Requirement.
"Communication is like a muscle--you either exercise it or it atrophies," said Kip V. Hodges, professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences and chair of the committee. He gave the faculty an update on the group's initial findings and a timetable for discussion and a vote on a final proposal in the spring.
The present MIT writing requirement is, "for all practical purposes, a minimum proficiency test that does little to improve the quality of student writing," Professor Hodges said. "To stay competitive in an evolving job market, our students need better skills in both writing and speaking. It is our job as educators to encourage them to develop these skills."
Based on the writing skills of a sample group of MIT juniors, 15-20 percent entered MIT with a marked deficiency in writing skills, the committee's study showed. However, the committee also found that 25-30 percent of juniors have inadequate writing skills, despite have passed Phase I of the writing requirement, he said. Writing skills had zero correlation with grades, the survey found.
An alumni/ae survey showed that only 25 percent felt MIT contributed substantially to their capacity to write clearly and effectively, and only 15 percent felt MIT contributed substantially to their public speaking ability.
Professor Hodges said the difficulties in implementing these changes are substantial. "We can't just require new courses. We can't compromise quantitative education. We must be sensitive to faculty workload. We can't break the bank."
He outlined a "beta-test version" of a scenario the committee is discussing. For the freshman year, it would have either a freshman advising seminar, a communications-intensive (CI) undergraduate seminar geared toward non-majors, a CI Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (HASS) subject, a HASS subject with an attached communications practicum, or an expository writing course.
In the sophomore year, there would be either a CI HASS subject, a HASS subject with an attached communications practicum, or an expository writing course. In the junior year, there would be a CI subject in the student's major, or a departmental option for a core course with an attached communications practicum or a stand-alone CI course.
Senior year would feature the development of communication skills outside the formal classroom setting but in the context of each student's major. Options include senior theses, senior projects, UROP reports or participation in CI workshops and seminars.
Professor Hodges, who noted that the committee is seeking input from faculty and students, said the group must discuss budgetary issues with the administration, and it is seeking to have a formal proposal to the Faculty Policy Committee and to the faculty before the end of this academic year.
Professor Paul Penfield, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, said his experience was that essay questions on final exams were very valuable and worth the extra work, but were much more difficult to grade.
"One of the boundary conditions is to try not to work the faculty any harder," Professor Hodges responded. "It would be very difficult to have no negative impact." He said the committee was trying to create a solution which would have the maximum flexibility for students in the first two years and the maximum flexibility for departments in the last two years.
"A solution to this issue is not simple because tradeoffs have to be found somewhere," President Charles M. Vest commented. "But I don't think there is any other message that is so consistent or intense through every temperature-taking that we attempt, whether it be the student self-perception, the alumni and alumnae surveys, the comments by employers who hire our students, or the several studies of undergraduate education around the country over the last few years. Every one of them has, right up at the top, the recommendation that we need to work harder at developing the communication skills of our students, and I hope we will continue to work very hard to figure out how to do that."
SM IN GEOSYSTEMS
In another major change, the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences announced it is planning a one-year professional master's degree program in geosystems, in order to prepare graduates for scientific and management careers in environmental and technical consulting careers.
Professor Thomas Jordan, head of EAPS, said enrollment would be limited to 15 to 20 students per year. For most of the program's graduates, this would be the most advanced degree they will obtain.
The typical program would consist of 45 credit units in the fall, 12 during IAP and 51 in the spring. The fall course would be Geosystems I (12.550); a subject in the student's particular discipline; a Sloan Management School course, Economic Analysis for Business Decisions (15.011), and a Practicum in Scientific Writing and Oral Communication (12.445). During IAP, there would be an EAPS field subject and a lab subject. In the spring, there would be Geosystems II (12.551); a subject in the student's particular discipline; Analysis and Inference in Geoscience; and a short thesis of less than 100 pages.
The proposal was accepted without debate and, pending a faculty vote at the November meeting, will be instituted next fall. "Given the revolutionary nature of such a degree in the School of Science, the fact that there's no discussion is mildly surprising," Dr. Vest commented.
Associate Provost Philip Clay presented highlights of a Higher Education Research Institute survey, to which 337 MIT faculty responded.
Faculty members expressed a high degree of satisfaction regarding their autonomy, the quality of students, the opportunity to work with distinguished colleagues, and the opportunity for intellectual growth and development. There was substantial agreement on personal goals of becoming an authority in one's field and of balancing career with family life.
Respondents said they believed that issues of high priority at MIT were promoting intellectual development and enhancing MIT's national image and prestige. Dr. Clay noted that faculty ranked developing leadership abilities in students as less of a priority than students or alumni/ae felt it should be.
President Vest noted that the student survey responses from MIT were "very, very positive compared to most of the other 10 or 12 institutions against which we were compared.
"I found the most troubling aspect-not particularly surprising but still troubling-is that there are some very large differences in the view of our women and male faculty members, and I think we yet again have to understand that, pay attention to it, and do our best to take corrective actions where they are indicated."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 23, 1996.