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Panel to revamp program for first and second years

Faculty and administrators are collaborating on a major redesign of the first- and second-year program at MIT, beginning with a series of experiments over the next two years. If all goes according to plan, the changes will go into effect in the fall term of 2001, to coincide with the completion of the new undergraduate residence and the housing of all freshmen in residence halls.

The curriculum redesign is part of a joint initiative between the Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP), chaired by Professor Suzanne Flynn, head of foreign languages and literatures with an appointment in linguistics and philosophy, and Dean of Undergraduate Curriculum Kip Hodges. The design process itself will be managed by a subcommittee of CUP, known as the Educational Design Project, which will be co-chaired by Dean Hodges and Stephen Benton, the Allen Professor of Media Arts and Sciences.

The motivation of redesigning the first- and second-year curriculum arises in part from the recent report of the Task Force on Student Life and Learning, which considered the academic experience during its two-year review of education at MIT. The task force noted that while "intensity, curiosity and excitement" help define the common ethos of the Institute, "some aspects of the curriculum's pace and pressure should be examined and revised."

To this end, the task force has called for more excitement in the first year, possibly including a more significant role for research, design and other inquiry-based experiences in the first and second years.

Although the process is in its formative stages, ideas for how the curriculum might change have already surfaced, and will serve as the basis for the design team's work. Proposals include a major expansion of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), sponsorship of more first-year internship programs, and a delay in the choice of major field. The new program will almost certainly involve an increased role for educational technology, both inside and outside the classroom.

Those ideas and more remain up for discussion, but they provide some idea of the scale and scope of the changes being weighed by members of the Educational Design Project.


To gather student and alumni/ae input, Dean Hodges, the Alumni/ae Association and the Undergraduate Association are sponsoring a series of intense topical discussions in mid-November. These sessions will bring together undergraduates and alumni/ae to talk about perceptions of the existing curriculum's strengths and weaknesses, and to begin to involve all members of the community in the curriculum design process.

Later in November, separate meetings will be held with departmental faculty members, graduate teaching assistants, private entrepreneurs and representatives of other major universities.

The timeline for the curricular redesign is ambitious. The committee's charge calls for the Education Design Project to launch one or more experimental initiatives in the fall term next year, followed by two academic years during which different proposals and experiments will be tried and assessed. The committee is also charged with identifying the right faculty members to implement the experimental and full curriculum reforms, and with presenting a final proposal for curriculum redesign to the faculty for implementation in the fall of 2001.

While the Educational Design Project's work is intended to have a major impact on undergraduate education, the group also hopes to serve as a model for more proactive faculty governance. The recent report of the Task Force on Student Life and Learning singled out the administration of general undergraduate education as an area in which faculty governance has been ineffective and inefficient. With the partnership of Dean Hodges, CUP and the Educational Design Project hope to serve as the launching point for new initiatives and reforms, according to the committee's charge, "instead of waiting for ideas��������������������������� or charging yet another review of the core [undergraduate curriculum] requirements."

If the Educational Design Team's plans bear fruit, partnerships between administrative offices and Institute committees could become more common, and ultimately such initiatives and experiments could represent a solution to the need identified by the task force for more dynamic oversight of common educational programs.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 21, 1998.

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