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Proposals for revamping first year sought

The Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP) and the Council on Educational Technology (CET) have issued a call for preliminary proposals for ambitious projects that would dramatically enhance and potentially transform the experience of MIT's first-year students.

Earlier this year, President Vest announced a $10 million gift from Alex and Brit d'Arbeloff to support educational innovation in the teaching of science and engineering at MIT. "Educational change is in the wind at MIT and throughout academia," he said. "This magnificent gift will enable our faculty to translate into action the wealth of new pedagogical ideas welling up through MIT."

The report of the Task Force on Student Life and Learning paved the way for a number of discussions within the Committee on the Undergraduate Program and elsewhere regarding ways to strengthen the undergraduate program. The recently released report of the Educational Design Project (EDP), as well as the findings of an educational "charrette" held last spring, reached similar conclusions with respect to the need to improve the first year experience.

The Task Force recommended that a priority for MIT should be increasing the level of excitement in the first-year program, and the EDP found that "the current curriculum does not do enough to sustain student enthusiasm for learning, or to leverage upon their enthusiasm and sense of academic direction to achieve better educational results." More recently, the Council on Educational Technology has joined this effort by endorsing this request for proposals and agreeing to serve as the grants review board.

The decision has been made, therefore, that the first grants made from the Alex and Brit d'Arbeloff Fund will be used to support this effort to improve the first-year experience.

"A residential education should offer more learning than can be delivered by sitting alone in your room with a computer. The challenge is to generate ideas from the faculty that will turn this general thought about education into concrete programs that will make the freshman year at MIT a model for the rest of higher education in science and engineering," Mr. d'Arbeloff said.

"What MIT has done superbly, and must continue to do superbly, is to bring together teachers and students in a community devoted to learning through dealing with real-world problems," said Rosalind Williams, dean of students and undergraduate education, and co-chair of the CET Grants Working Group. "The d'Arbeloff fund is intended to foster that community of learning. In particular, Alex and Brit want MIT to experiment with modes of learning that offer more variety and that demand more student interaction than the now-dominant mode of lecture-recitation-problem set,"

The CUP has identified a set of goals for students during their first undergraduate year. Among these goals are several that will require the creative energies of faculty in new curriculum initiatives and are thus the target for this request for proposals (RFP):

  • Increase the level of intellectual excitement in the first-year program.
  • Promote the more active engagement of the students in their own education.
  • Increase opportunities for "learning by doing" experiences in the first year.
  • Foster development of mentoring relationships between students and faculty.
  • Introduce more team-based, problem-solving activities into the first-year curriculum.

The following experiments are examples of projects that would address these goals:

  • Design a project based program for the entire freshman class that would involve students, faculty and alumni/ae.
  • Revamp the freshman advising and seminar systems. Involve the housing system and alumni in this new model.
  • Totally revamp the teaching of a core science subject.
  • Integrate engineering and science core subjects.
  • Design a tutorial-based HASS experience.

The groups supporting this effort understand that two of the greatest impediments to change are the constraints on faculty time and the apparent intransigence of Institute requirements, rules and regulations. Therefore, the grant will enable faculty time to be bought out, and in collaboration with CUP, efforts will be made to waive rules and make change possible through other substantive actions.


Copies of the full RFP containing information about criteria, requirements, restrictions and other details will be mailed to faculty members soon, and will also published in the Faculty Newsletter and made available on the web.

To make the submission process as simple as possible, the Grants Subcommittee is emphasizing the preliminary proposal and giving applicants considerable assistance at this stage. Assistance will include staff consultation and may include financial support in the form of seed money.

The committee invites one- or two-page preliminary proposals submitted by e-mail to Helen Samuels, staff to the Council on Educational Technology, x8-0310, Rm E32-335, by Jan. 15, 2000. Preliminary proposals will be reviewed by the Grants Subcommittee by mid-February. Awards will be applied beginning with the 2000-2001 academic year.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 15, 1999.

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