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Vandiver discusses plans as dean for undergraduate research

Professor J. Kim Vandiver, founding director of the Edgerton Center and former director of the Experimental Study Group, is once again paving a path in undergraduate education at the Institute. As of July 1, he became dean for undergraduate research, a new rendering of the former position of dean for undergraduate curriculum.

In the newly defined position -- which reports to the dean for undergraduate education, Rosalind Williams -- Professor Vandiver hopes to change the undergraduate academic experience at MIT as recommended by the Task Force for Student Life and Learning. His goal is to incorporate more and earlier opportunities for students to get involved in real-life problem solving, engage in research, and perhaps most importantly, develop relationships with faculty mentors.

"The position of dean for undergraduate curriculum was constantly being redefined in response to changes at the Institute during the three years that Kip Hodges held the job," said Dean Williams. "When Kip decided to step down in July, it was really time for us to take stock.

"The Task Force specifically suggested tighter integration of research and other forms of education. When Norma McGavern-Norland retired as UROP [Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program] director last spring, we decided that we needed faculty leadership in UROP to follow up on the Task Force recommendations.

"We looked at that need and at Kim's experience directing the Edgerton Center and heading the Experimental Study Group, which has a strong mentoring component. Kim was also chair of the faculty from 1991-93, and has a deep background and knowledge of the Institute and how to get things done here.

"His general strengths and leadership combined with his knowledge of undergraduate education make him a perfect fit with the new position. We are really lucky to have him," said Dean Williams.

A professor of ocean engineering who teaches a senior-level course in mechanical vibration, Dean Vandiver has proven his commitment to hands-on learning and other innovative teaching styles by founding the Edgerton Center (with the help of Professor Paul Penfield, then the head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science), created in 1992 to provide hands-on resources and skill-oriented training for students.

From 1984-89, Dean Vandiver was director of the Experimental Study Group, which employs a system of undergraduate and graduate tutors, lecturers and professors to teach core freshmen subjects in small, self-paced groups, rather than in lecture halls.

He also has two children who attended MIT, providing him with yet another perspective on the undergraduate experience.

As dean, he will continue to serve as director of the Edgerton Center, take on faculty leadership of UROP and work with the Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP) to incorporate changes in the undergraduate curriculum, as well as find ways of better integrating the academic, research and residential life of our students.


"I'm a believer in acquiring real skills -- the stuff Professor John King calls the 'mulch of experience.' You need to have fooled with a lot of stuff in your life before you'll be a good designer. You need to know things like how to solder, tear apart a motor, type, drive or fly," Dean Vandiver said.

He credits the success of one of his early research projects to experience gained as a student while helping a research biologist repair a boat dock at Woods Hole. "I learned to drive pilings with a water jet. As an assistant professor five years later, I needed steel pipe embedded in the ground of a sandbar to support cables for a vibration project in Castine, ME," he said. "Because of the boat dock experience, I knew how to get the job done. It pays to volunteer, especially when you're looking for a UROP.

"I have a pretty liberal interpretation of which experiences can be valuable learning experiences. For that reason, I think anything that gives you a useful skill is a good UROP project."

But UROP is about more than just acquiring skills.

"I believe the fundamental objective of UROP is to provide students with good mentoring," said Dean Vandiver. "But one problem is that first-year students often have a hard time finding their first UROP. They don't know the faculty and they have fewer marketable skills than upperclassmen.

"As director of both the Edgerton Center and UROP, I hope to really get the two organizations working closely together. For instance, we might jointly sponsor training to prepare students for UROPs," he said.


One way to make it easier for students to land that first UROP job is to lower the stakes and at the same time change the dynamic between freshmen and faculty. Most UROPs are semester-long, and sometimes require significant training for the student, "making the threshold high for both faculty and students," said Dean Vandiver. "I'd like to create a UROP-like experience that requires less of a time commitment and gains immediate respect for the student."

To this end, he proposes to establish a student-run consulting company that would provide undergraduate consultants for short-term projects using skills they already have. A faculty member might log onto a web site seeking a stu-dent to take on a short-term project such as programming a microprocessor, solving a software problem or building a model for a wind tunnel experiment. The consulting company would match the job with an available student, providing him or her with the chance to earn a little money while also developing a relationship with a faculty member.

"This would be a very different dynamic between student and faculty. It would start out as a small job, but the faculty would respect what the student brings to that job. It would really create more of a collegial relationship," Dean Vandiver said.


Another area highlighted for change by the Task Force is the freshman curriculum. Dean Vandiver has ideas for gently attacking that front as well.

"Students have many different preferred styles of learning. We should offer them a wider variety -- beyond just lectures and problem sets," he said. The freshman curriculum is now set up for a lot of "delayed gratification. They don't get to do the neat stuff until they're sophomores or later."

To solve this problem, he supports a recent faculty proposal to integrate sophomore-level applications into freshmen physics courses to provide real-life context for the work.

"This would be the perfect marriage of theory and application. It would give freshmen the foundation of knowledge they require for upperclass work" as well as provide them with some of the more interesting applications they hunger for. "There's no reason that foundation can't be learned with relevant application of problems."

Dean Vandiver also talks of designing an academic experience that would bring together student residential life with the classroom. "Since we're moving all freshmen on campus, that creates new opportunities. We could have some neat seminars taught in the residence halls. They might have student instructors with faculty participation. They could be student-initiated," he said.

While most of these initiatives are still in the planning stage, it's clear that MIT's undergraduate curriculum will undergo change over the next few years, under a partnership involving the dean's office, the departments and CUP.

In the meantime, Dean Vandiver has a definite plan for extending hands-on learning to alumni/ae when he and Professor Alex Slocum of mechanical engineering run the Lego-car race at this fall's fundraising campaign kickoff. "The car that's fastest down the tube might not be able to stay on course for the hill," he said. "They'll have to play with the design to get it right."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 22, 1999.

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