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D'Arbeloff grants awarded for proposals to improve first year

D'Arbeloff grants totalling a million dollars have been awarded to fund seven proposals for innovation in education at MIT.

The projects, designed to enhance and potentially transform the academic and residential experience of MIT's first-year students, were selected by the grants subcommitte of the Council on Educational Technology (CET) in consultation with the Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP).

The proposals include innovations in teaching first-year physics and math; in exposing students to the wide variety of opportunities in science, technology, bioengineering and medicine; and in solving complex problems in a multi-disciplinary, project-based learning environment. Three of the funded proposals are for projects designed to improve mentoring and advising.

The d'Arbeloff Fund for Excellence in MIT Education was established in 1999 with a $10 million gift from Alex and Brit d'Arbeloff.

At that time, MIT President Charles M. Vest said, "Educational change is in the wind at MIT and throughout academia. This magnificent gift will enable our faculty to translate into action the wealth of new pedagogical ideas welling up through MIT."

Commented Mr. d'Arbeloff (SB 1949), "The challenge is to generate ideas from the faculty that will turn into concrete programs to make the freshman year at MIT a model for the rest of higher education in science and engineering."

Professor Robert Redwine, Dean for Undergraduate Education and chair of the CET grants subcommittee, anticipated that this year's d'Arbeloff grants would lead to "important and lasting changes in student life and learning at MIT. The pilots that are now under way are some of the most exciting experiments we have attempted in a long time. Perhaps even more important, it is likely that successful experiments will be scalable and sustainable for many students at the Institute," he said.

Dean Redwine also noted the "truly critical importance" of endowed funds that target eductional innovation. "We are fortunate that such funding has become available just as many faculty are anxious to devote their efforts to renewing and revitalizing the educational experience at MIT," he said.

Professor Rosalind H. Williams was chair of the CET Grants Subcommitte at the time the awardees were selected (June 1999). She enthusiastically described the d'Arbeloff grants and the selection process as exemplifying a "chain of giving" that began with flexible and generous donors and included a wide community of support.

"Alex and Brit have contributed not only the $10 million dollars, but also their creatvity and enthusiasm. The chain has continued in the form of a collaborative process for deciding how to use the funds most effectively for educational innovation at MIT. The chain then linked, most importantly, with faculty. Both individiuals and small groups of faculty submitted dozens of innovative and exciting proposals," she said.

Four of the d'Arbeloff grants have been awarded to curriculum development projects and three are pilot programs designed to build stronger ties within the MIT community for first-year students, through innovations in advising or mentoring systems.


Studio Physics at MIT: The Rebirth of Wonder

Professor John Belcher taught the large lectures (about 700 students) in 8.02 (Physics II) once each term for three years in the early 1990s.

"As a result of that experience I simply do not believe the large lecture format is a very effective way to teach. What the Department of Physics hopes to do with Technology-Enabled Active Learning (TEAL) is develop a more engaging course in which students learn more, and are more engaged in that learning process," he said.

What was lost in the lecture hall may be regained in the hands-on, active-learning "studio" approach, Professor Belcher said. The studio concept refers to the hands-on method of teaching used in the fine arts, he said.

Professor Belcher cited the use of technology in visualizing physics as effective in that "it makes the things that we cannot 'see' in the real world visible in a virtual one. In electromagnetism in particular, which is a very subtle and abstract topic, visualizing is a crucial part of the learning process."

In keeping with Professor Williams's characterization of the d'Arbeloff grants process as a chain of giving, Professor Belcher said, "It helps enormously to have the chair of the Corporation advocating for these initiatives."


Factories and Laboratories: A New Undergraduate Seminar

Three faculty in the Program in Science, Technology and Society were awarded a d'Arbeloff grant for a field-trip-based program to help MIT freshmen become more aware of opportunities in science, technology, bioengineering and medicine, and of how these areas intersect.

The faculty: Deborah Fitzgerald, associate professor of the history of technology and director of graduate studies for the program; Evelynn Hammonds, associate professor of the history of science; and David Mindell, Frances and David Dibner Associate Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing, hope to expose students to all dimensions of the scientific enterprise.

Professor Mindell summarized the project's several goals.

"Factories expose students to environments of technological production, with all their engineering, economic and social complexity. Laboratories reveal the day-to-day workings of the scientific enterprise, with all its intellectual, practical and institutional dimensions," he said.

Specific goals of the project include getting students out into the real world of science and technology; establishing the relevance of the General Institute Requirements subjects to daily technical practice; setting up conversations "across generations" of MIT students and graduates; teaching them how to be sophisticated observers of the complex social relationships that factories and laboratories embody and to decide for themselves what they find interesting and worthwhile.

"Ultimately, we want to teach students to ask new questions, such as 'How does the introduction of new technology change the skills required of production workers? How does it change the skills required of engineers and managers? How is information technology changing laboratory practice? How do engineering managers mix technical skills with interpersonal ones? Who are the anticipated users of a new technology?'" said Professor Mindell.


Solving Complex Problems: Mission 2004

Professor Kip V. Hodges of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences has developed a pilot freshman subject to provide students an opportunity to experience an "expanded learning community" and to "work as teams on a large, interdisciplinary problem -- this year the design of a mission to Mars to search for signs of past or present life," he said.

"Not only has Mission 2004 engaged freshmen innovatively, but it has also widened the pool of 'staff' beyond faculty and graduate teaching assistants. Upperclassmen from all over the Institute will serve as mentor/coaches for the design teams, and so will alumni and non-alumni professional mentors," he said.

"Pilot programs of this magnitude could not be developed at MIT were it not for the d'Arbeloff funds. I only hope that the students appreciate the beneficence of the d'Arbeloffs in funding this and other educational initiatives," said Professor Hodges.


Pedagogical Initiatives in Math

Professors of Mathematics Haynes Miller, David Jerison and Gil Strang were awarded a d'Arbeloff fund grant to support a comprehensive planning effort during 2000-01 to develop initiatives in the first-year mathematics program.

"Science lectures have traditionally been enlivened by guns firing, Bessemer processes melting down, the professor atop a rocket and so forth. In 18.03 (Differential Equations) we have for years thrown books to illustrate the Euler dynamical system. Recent progress in graphics software has opened the possibility of bringing more dramatic simulations into the classroom. We intend to build on this," they said.

The vision of the mathematics program designers will affect several arenas: lectures, which will be interactive and technologically enhanced; homework, which requires new strategies; an online reference encyclopedia; a modularized syllabus; freshman advising seminars; and department laboratory courses.

"Mathematics is the common language of the MIT community. Luckily, technological advances offer alternatives to chalk and blackboard which, after all, are Stone Age implements," their proposal states. "Our long-term goal is to bring new life to all the current formats and to introduce others as well."

The math initiative will also explore "better uses for human resources than the painfully isolated, repetitive drudgery of grading homework" for faculty and the ineffectiveness of it for students. The pilot will experiment with automated routine homework submission, interactive simulations and multi-user environments so teams can work cooperatively on homework assignments.

The math pilot designers also noted the need for freshmen to be encouraged, through advising seminars, to "keep their ultimate goals in sight" despite MIT's daunting workload.


BIOmatrix: Advising and Tutoring in Real-Life Issues

Martha Gray, Edward Hood Taplin Professor of Medical and Electrical Engineering and co-director of the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology (HST), and Dr. Rick Mitchell, associate master, HST, responded to the challenge to transform the freshman experience by developing a pilot program, Biomedical Sciences and Biomedical Engineering MIT Advising and Tutoring in Real-Life Issues (BIOMatrix).

"As the interests and career paths of our undergraduates become increasingly diverse, the need for advice, guidance and mentoring increases. The goal of this pilot is to provide a non-didactic, hands-on opportunity to observe and participate in activities related to the biological sciences. The goals are to provide a sustainable mentoring mechanism that is relatively undifferentiated in terms of choice of biomedical career and to offer students the chance to join a 'family' of HST faculty, graduate students and alumni," the program creators wrote.

"This program will offer students the opportunity of having at least one faculty member who knows them well by the time they graduate and of having informal intellectual contact with people actually working in the disciplines the students are exploring," they said.

Planning is under way to introduce BIOMatrix to freshmen next spring.


Advising Pilots for 2000-01

The Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education (DUE) was awarded a d'Arbeloff grant to establish pilot residence-based advising programs in McCormick Hall and Random Hall. The DUE also received a planning grant to redesign academic information delivery through aggressive use of information technology to support student advising.

The pilot advising programs in McCormick and, on a lesser scale, in Random Hall are designed to explore the connection between the residential community and advising. The goals of this program include the creation of residence-based "families" of freshmen, upper-class students, graduate students and faculty who establish their identity through the living group.

The McCormick pilot was in place for this year's freshmen and consists of eight residence-based advising cohorts, including six freshman advising seminar groups. The goals of the program include creating residence-based families of students, associate advisors, graduate resident tutors, faculty advisors, housemasters and staff.

The pilot based in Random Hall has the same focus as the McCormick Hall program but without a seminar or advising component. Instead of faculty advisors, Random has introduced an improved House Fellows program that is augmented by residence-based associate advisors.


Advising in the First Two Years: Improving Delivery of Academic Information to Students and Advisors

A planning grant was awarded to the DUE to undertake a strategic look at the early advising experience of MIT undergraduates with a view to improving the information provided to advisors. Pilot programs will be undertaken that apply new technology to student and faculty needs including academic program planning, secure communication, registration and course changes, identification of educational opportunities and assistance with study skills, problem-solving and time management.

"The end goal of this project is to enable advisors to focus on the relationship and academic value to the student, the academic program and to the Institute rather than on locating, interpreting and applying information from diverse, inconsistent sources," wrote the authors of this proposal. The faculty sponsor of this planning grant is J. Kim Vandiver, professor of ocean engineering and Dean for Undergraduate Research.

"We are convinced that properly developed and applied information technology will provide advisor and advisee with robust advising support. We also believe that such technology will permit others to be virtual partners in the advising relationship and that it will open the door to increased participation by alumni," the authors of the proposal wrote.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 25, 2000.

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