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Freshman grading change approved

At its April meeting, the faculty voted to approve changes in the pass/no-record grading system for freshman year and heard a proposal for a master's program in science writing and endorsed several Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP) recommendations.

Faculty members also heard that Associate Professors Justine Cassell and Seth Lloyd are this year's Edgerton Award winners (see story on this page).

The current grading system will remain in effect for the first term. In the second term, freshmen will be graded according to an A/B/C/no-external-record system.

Former MIT President and Professor Emeritus Paul E. Gray introduced a motion to delay implementation of the proposed changes until fall 2003, but his motion did not carry. "We've had pass/no-record for 30 years. One more year is not going to make much difference," he said. The motion to delay was urged by Undergraduate Association President Peter A. Shulman, a senior in mathematics.

CUP had recommended that a score of 5 on the College Board Advanced Placement Test or its equivalent on another exam be required for receiving MIT subject credit. (The general cutoff for MIT credit was a 4.) In addition, CUP reaffirmed a faculty member's power to enforce prerequisites and proposed that sophomores be permitted to designate one subject each semester as exploratory.

Any subject may be designated as exploratory, including Institute requirements and departmental requirements. Those in support of sophomores' use of the exploratory option said that students will be less likely to get locked into majors they may have selected back in high school, it was noted.


Professor Robert Kanigel of the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies and Professor James Paradis, head of the program, presented a proposal to establish a one-year master's degree in science writing.

"Many of you have thrilled to see an experiment go right. Your scientifically comfortable friends get it, but others wonder, 'How can you get so excited?' Science writers penetrate your world and reach out to a larger world. Sometimes they do this under daily deadlines, sometimes weekly or monthly, or over years as for a book. In any case, science writing is not easy. It is very easy to screw up," Professor Kanigel said.

"You've seen people get it wrong, whether through gross error, or through simplifying your work so far that all the meat is gone, or by making it really boring. And that's just as bad, for it deadens the public to medical, technological and scientific innovation. Good science writers are in the business of being mediators between the lab and the larger world. MIT can become the premier training ground for them," he said.

The proposed science writing program would consist of a year-long intensive seminar, electives, a thesis and a summer internship. The program would take two years for teaching assistants. An initial class of five students and a "steady state of 10, with half paying their way" would be enrolled, Professor Kanigel said.

"We have some of the most distinguished science writers already here at MIT," Professor Paradis said. "We've already worked out finances and space and have faculty, including Boyce Rensberger, director of the Knight Fellows program. With the Knight Fellows themselves, we have experienced people to work alongside new people wanting to learn the craft."

Steven R. Lerman, professor of civil and environmental engineering and chair of the faculty, expressed "wholehearted enthusiam" for the motion. "Creating another generation of science writers can only be good for MIT," he said.

Philip S. Khoury, dean of the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, called the writing program proposal a "golden opportunity." "The 10 department heads in the school of humanities endorsed it wholeheartedly. We've worked out a good funding package," he said.


A motion to approve a change in the Rules and Regulations of the Faculty to include undergraduate advising in the purview of the Committee on the Undergraduate program will be voted on in the May faculty meeting.


Alar Toomre, professor of mathematics, presented the report of the Committee on Nominations for various faculty committees. A motion to approve the slate was moved and seconded and will be voted on at the May meeting. The slate of nominations is posted on the faculty meeting archives site.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 25, 2001.

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